A new study from a Massachusetts research firm illustrates a pattern of racial discrimination in Uber pickups, showing black passengers wait longer for rides and face cancellations at double the rate of white passengers.
The study, conducted for the National Bureau of Economic Research, analyzed nearly 1,500 rides on the platform and other ride-hailing services for evidence of racial bias. Researchers found UberX drivers were more than two times as likely to cancel on riders with “African-American-sounding names” and that passengers thought to be black waited as much as 35 percent longer for rides. Among men who requested rides in “low-density areas,” riders were more than three times as likely to have their trip canceled if they used an African American-sounding name, the study found.
Researchers from Stanford University, the University of Washington and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology oversaw the study, conducting tests in Seattle and Boston that aimed to uncover bias in the pickup patterns for ride-hailing services.
Here’s how it worked: For each trip, researchers took screenshots just before they requested a ride showing 1) the expected wait time before a trip, 2) the wait time after the trip was accepted, 3) the times when the driver arrived 4) the time the trip ended. They analyzed wait and travel times, cancellation rates, costs and user ratings given by drivers, according to the study. But they did so using dual profiles — one with a white-sounding name and another with a seemingly black-sounding name.
“We find significant evidence of racial discrimination in both experiments,” the report said, citing the Boston and Seattle studies.
In Seattle, researchers found, black riders on UberX faced about 30 percent longer waits than white riders. No such pattern was found for riders using similar apps, such as Lyft. Researchers surmised that was because on Lyft, names and photos are given to drivers before they accept a trip, so “any discrimination occurs prior to accepting the initial request.”
In Boston, the higher density of drivers meant that longer waits were less likely, researchers said. But researchers found an equally disturbing trend in Uber pickups.
UberX passengers with black-sounding names faced more than double the cancellation rate of those with white-sounding names — 10.1 percent vs. 4.9 percent, according to the study. The problem was worse for men, whose cancellation rates were 11.2 percent when using African American-sounding names, compared 4.5 percent when the same people used names thought to be white.
In a statement Monday, Uber said “Discrimination has no place in society, and no place on Uber,” but said the study opened the door for more thought into how it can improve.
“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,” said Rachel Holt, the company’s head of North American operations. “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.”
Lyft also pushed back against the notion that its model is discriminatory.
“Because of Lyft, people living in under-served areas — which taxis have historically neglected — are now able to access convenient, affordable rides,” Lyft spokesman Adrian Durbin told the Boston Globe. “And we provide this service while maintaining an inclusive and welcoming community, and do not tolerate any form of discrimination.”
Still, the study found ride-hailing apps exercise discriminatory practices in these under-served areas too. When hailing cabs, studies show, black passengers tend to wait 30 percent longer than white pedestrians, according to research cited in the NBER study.
And this year, Lyft suspended a driver for declining to pick up a passenger east of the Anacostia River in the District, texting her “I don’t pick up from SE, sorry,” according to Washingtonian.
Among the study’s other findings: Female riders were subjected to lengthier and costlier rides in Boston, according to the researchers.
Researchers point to removing names from ride-hailing services’ booking processes as a possible solution, but worry that doing so might lead to other types of mistreatment.