Study shows cities with ride-hailing services report lower rates of sexual assault

Since Uber’s launch in 2010, ride-hailing has grown to one of the most dominant transportation modes in many cities. Thanks to ride-hailing, travelers no longer need to wave a hand to taxicabs in hope of getting picked up. Even if you are fortunate enough to own a car in a city, you are free from driving after drinking and don’t need to find an elusive parking spot, which often seems to equate to winning a lottery.

Along with their exponential growth, however, companies such as Uber and Lyft have had to endure a number of criticisms and scandals. One of such crises is that there have been a number of incidents where its drivers committed sexual assault or other crimes. But our research provides a surprising finding: Ride-hailing, in fact, reduces the occurrences of sexual assault.

In our article “The Deterrent Effect of Ride-Sharing on Sexual Assault and Investigation of Situational Contingencies,” we analyzed data from New York City in 2015, which include Uber transaction records and crime reports. We found that the more Uber pickups take place in a neighborhood, the less likely it is for a rape incident to be reported in the same area. Our results suggest that a 1% increase in Uber pickups lead to a decrease in reported cases of sexual assault by as many as 48 cases per year in NYC.

Ride-hailing drivers can be dangerous people. We’re certainly not saying that they’re not committing crimes — however, the good people who work for Uber or Lyft might also be helping to keep the innocent away from other potential dangerous people, too.

Our in-depth analysis reveals more interesting insights. Specifically, we find that ride-hailing contributes to a greater reduction in rape cases in areas and situations where the transport supply rarely meets the demand, such as:

  • at the areas where fewer taxi pickups occur.
  • in the outer boroughs of NYC (Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and The Bronx) — rather than in Manhattan.
  • in the areas with a greater percentage of nonwhite residents.
  • at nighttime.
  • in the areas with more alcohol-serving places during Friday-Saturday nights than during weekday nights.
  • when a greater number of other crimes occur in the same area.

So, how is this possible? How can ride-hailing decrease, rather than increase, reported sexual assault incidents? Simply put, it helps potential vulnerable victims by moving them to safer places (home) as quickly as possible.

Waiting for a taxi on the street, walking eight blocks to a subway station or even riding the subway home alone may be undesirable options late at night, but ride-hailing affords travelers with an option to escape such a situation. Our data shows that wait times for Uber are substantially shorter than it is for taxis, and in the outskirts of a city, Uber is more widely available. In 2015, in the outer boroughs of NYC, about 23% of the rides were provided by Uber, which was twice as much as in Manhattan (12%), increasing up to 91% in the areas farthest from Manhattan (e.g., Bensonhurst, Queens Village, Cambria Heights).

This is thanks to real-time matching of supply (drivers) and demand (passengers) through Uber’s mobile platform. Its platform knows exactly where both passengers and drivers are and can instantly match a passenger to the nearest driver, whom it can direct to the exact location of the passenger. Dynamic pricing also allows drivers to respond to market demands instantly, which helps match supply and demand closely.

This platform’s real-time matching and dynamic pricing also explain why the crime-deterrent effect of ride-hailing is stronger outside Manhattan. As said, it is difficult for a passenger to find a taxi out on the street; by the same token, it’s difficult for taxi drivers to find passengers on the street. Taxi drivers usually drive around or wait at popular pickup spots (e.g., airports, train stations, hotels), but it is not economical for them to do this in the outer boroughs. Because of this difficulty in finding passengers, most of them tend to operate at heavily populated areas. Ride-sharing fills this transportation gap, allowing potential crime victims to easily transport themselves to their homes.

We have also observed this effect across other cities in the U.S. between 2005 and 2017. We found that when Uber commences its service in a city, the number of reported rape incidents has declined by up to 6%.

So, what do our findings mean for policymakers? Our research echoes that public safety and transportation are interrelated matters, and reliable, convenient transportation infrastructures for citizens can be one of the mechanisms to deter crimes.

For instance, many areas with underprivileged populations suffer from persistent crime and are typically underserved by public transportation. As we mentioned, ride-hailing has a greater crime-prevention role in the outer boroughs or in more economically deprived areas. Our research informs us that by improving transportation infrastructures in such areas, we can bring multifaceted values to the citizens, including crime prevention.

To fill the transportation gap, some local governments are starting to operate on-demand transportation services. Under this service, instead of buses running over fixed routes on a predetermined schedule, passengers can request a ride anywhere, and a bus will respond and transport the passengers. Many universities also operate safe-ride programs for students around the campus. These types of flexible transportation systems can be more cost-effective for municipalities and while playing a role in crime deterrence.

Companies that aim to provide customers and employees with reliable transportation could benefit from IT-enabled transportation platforms, where new technology startups can play a role. For example, healthcare organizations have partnered with major ride-hailing companies to provide reliable transportation for their patients (e.g., Uber Health, Lyft Health), so that they can easily reach to care providers.

Ride-hailing drivers can be dangerous people. We’re certainly not saying that they’re not committing crimes — however, the good people who work for Uber or Lyft might also be helping to keep the innocent away from other potential dangerous people, too.