Uber, Lyft, and other ride-sharing services were supposed to be a more egalitarian transportation option than a traditional cab service. There’s a mountain of data that shows how difficult and dangerous something as simple as finding a cab ride home can be, particularly for women and black people. Ride-hailing apps were expected to help fix that.
But a new study finds some of the problems persist. The economists Yanbo Ge and Don MacKenzie, of the University of Washington, along with Christopher R. Knittel of MIT and Stephen Zoepf of Stanford, came up with an experiment to test how well these popular apps were serving groups that had been marginalized by the taxi industry. They sent research assistants out as riders in two cities, Seattle and Boston, to hail nearly 1,500 rides using Uber, Lyft, and another service called Flywheel. The riders took screenshots of the apps to chronicle their experience, recording their estimated wait times, whether a driver accepted them, and where and when they were picked up and dropped off. Through these trials the economists were able to gather data on how the three services differed in their treatment of gender and race. At the end of the trials, the economists found “significant evidence of racial discrimination,” meaning that black riders faced longer wait times and more frequent cancellations than white riders.
The data the researchers collected was especially damning for Uber. In Seattle, black riders who requested a ride using either Uber and Lyft waited substantially longer for their ride to be confirmed—they waited about 16 to 28 percent longer than white riders did. For black Uber riders in particular, wait times in Seattle were as much as between 29 to 35 percent longer. In the Boston experiment, black Uber riders were much more likely than white riders to have a driver cancel on them after confirming, and the effect is especially pronounced for black men, whose cancellation rate was three times as high as white males. And riders with “black-sounding names” were significantly more likely to be canceled on than either white riders ors black riders with “white-sounding names.” This effect was worse in lower-density areas, where finding a ride is often harder in the first place.