Drivers for Uber Technologies Inc. in Boston canceled rides for men with black-sounding names more than twice as often as for other men. Black people in Seattle using Uber and Lyft Inc. faced notably longer wait times to get paired with drivers than white customers. The findings come from a study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and the University of Washington.
“In many ways, the sharing economy is making it up as they go along,” said Christopher Knittel, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and an author of the study. “A lot of this is a learning process, and you can’t expect these companies to have everything perfect right out of the gate.”
A new generation of technology companies have begun to grapple with how they can minimize racial discrimination. Airbnb Inc. recently released an extensive report studying racial bias on the site and proposed some changes to its policies. The home-rental company committed to offering more training for its hosts and hiring a more diverse workforce. It sent emails to customers over the weekend saying they must agree not to discriminate in order to use the site starting next month. However, Airbnb has resisted advocates’ calls to remove photos of guests and hosts from its platform.
In the case of ride-hailing apps, researchers similarly believe that names and photos are an issue. Such information gives drivers the means to discriminate against prospective riders. Uber doesn’t show customer photos to drivers. Lyft does, but passengers aren’t required to provide a headshot. Both San Francisco-based companies give riders’ names to their drivers.
“We are extremely proud of the positive impact Lyft has on communities of color,” said Adrian Durbin, a spokesman for Lyft. “Because of Lyft, people 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.”
The study, conducted in Seattle and Boston, included almost 1,500 rides. Four black and four white research assistants split evenly among men and women ordered cars over six weeks in Seattle. All used their photos on the ride-sharing apps. A second test was held in Boston with riders “whose appearance allowed them to plausibly travel as a passenger of either race,” although they used either “African-American sounding” or “white sounding” names, the researchers said. The study found that Uber drivers disproportionately canceled on riders with black-sounding names, even though the company penalizes drivers who cancel frequently.
The researchers proposed changes that Uber and Lyft could make to reduce discrimination, including not identifying passengers’ names, more severe repercussions for drivers who cancel after accepting a ride and periodic reviews of drivers’ behavior to look for racism. However, Knittel acknowledged in an interview that there are advantages to providing personal information, such as creating a friendlier and more efficient experience. “There’s a trade-off here,” he said. “There is a potential benefit from showing names and photos, and yeah, I think we would agree with that. These companies have to weigh those two effects.”