Study says Uber and Lyft have racial discrimination problems

Just like Airbnb, ride-hailing startups Uber and Lyft are not immune to racial discrimination on its respective sharing economy platforms. It turns out that black people have to wait longer for rides in Seattle, according to a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The study, which researchers conducted in Seattle and Boston, looked at the results of nearly 1,500 rides hailed via Lyft, Uber and Flywheel on controlled routes.

Across all platforms, there is “some evidence” that it takes longer for drivers to accept trip requests from black people. But the most problematic platform seems to be Uber because the study found statistically significant longer wait times for black people riding UberX, and found zero significantly different wait times on Lyft and Flywheel. Taken as a whole, according to the study, “it would appear” that there’s evidence of racial discrimination among UberX drivers, some evidence of discrimination among Lyft drivers and no evidence of discrimination among Flywheel drivers.

“We are extremely proud of the positive impact Lyft has on communities of color,” Lyft spokesperson Adrian Durbin said in a statement to TechCrunch. “Because of Lyft, people living in underserved areas — which taxis have historically neglected — are now able to access convenient, affordable rides. And we provide this service while maintaining an inclusive and welcoming community, and do not tolerate any form of discrimination.”

In Boston, Uber drivers were more than twice as likely to cancel on people with “black-sounding” names, according to the study. Meanwhile, male passengers requesting rides in low-density areas were more than three times as likely to experience a cancelled UberX ride when they used a “black-sounding” name instead of a “white-sounding” one.

“Ridesharing apps are changing a transportation status quo that has been unequal for generations, making it easier and more affordable for people to get around — no matter who they are or where they live. Discrimination has no place in society, and no place on Uber,” Uber Head of North American Operations Rachel Holt said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “We believe Uber is helping reduce transportation inequities across the board, but studies like this one are helpful in thinking about how we can do even more.”

Discrimination on Uber and Lyft can happen in four main ways, according to the study. Drivers can either decide to avoid certain areas, decline requests from certain people or cancel a pick-up once they see the identity of the passenger, give passengers low ratings based on race and/or socioeconomic status and/or take longer, slower routes to increase the cost of the ride.

To be clear, when an Uber driver receives a ride request, they don’t see the photo of the passenger — just the name of the rider once they accept it. With Lyft, drivers see the name and photo of the person before they accept the ride. So, Uber drivers can discriminate by cancelling rides while Lyft drivers can discriminate by choosing to not accept the trip. Women also faced some discrimination in the form of longer-than-necessary rides.

In order to prevent potential discrimination, the researchers suggest a number of changes, like removing names to identify passengers and drivers, increasing disincentives for driver cancellations and implementing fixed fares. It’s not clear what measures Uber or Lyft plan to take, but based on Uber’s statement, it does seem like the company is open to making some product changes. It’s also worth noting that Uber has rolled out upfront fares in the last few months, though, critics say the pricing obscures surge pricing.