An Uber driver is twice as likely to cancel a ride if the passenger requesting it has a black-sounding name, a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research finds. The study, picked up by the Chronicle, focuses on close to 1,500 Lyft and Uber rides in Seattle and Boston and found that wait times for passengers with white-sounding names were also significantly shorter than those with black-sounding names.
"Results indicated a pattern of discrimination, which we observed in Seattle through longer waiting times for African American passengers—as much as a 35 percent increase," reads the abstract of the study, which was carried out by researches from Stanford, MIT, and the University of Washington. "In Boston, we observed discrimination by Uber drivers via more frequent cancellations against passengers when they used African American-sounding names."
While taxi drivers have long been accused of failing to stop for black passengers, it was hoped that ride-hail companies would help put an end to this particularly insidious form of discrimination. Just this past May, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington wrote of her experiences as a black woman trying to hail cabs versus Uber. The article was titled "Uber solves my ‘hailing while black’ problem."
“A black man couldn’t get a cab for 80 years in Harlem, right?” the columnist's former student, Voltaire Xodus, says in the piece. “Uber and Lyft come out and here, it is an innovation that not only does it shatter 80 years of racism, it puts money in the hands of people that will do the right thing in the communities.”
Maybe that is true in Chicago, but study authors say they found evidence to the contrary in Boston and Seattle. "Across all trips, the cancellation rate for African American sounding names was more than twice as frequent compared to white sounding names. Male passengers requesting a ride in low-density areas were more than three times as likely to have their trip canceled when they used a African American-sounding name than when they used a white-sounding name."
Interestingly, the study also found a troubling pattern of driver behavior when it came to female passengers. "We also find evidence that drivers took female passengers for longer, more expensive, rides in Boston."
The authors were quick to point out that the bias was being displayed by individual drivers, not the company as a whole, and yet that it is so widespread should ring alarm bells at both Uber and Lyft. “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,” Rachel Holt, head of North American operations for Uber, told the Chronicle.
While Uber tries to figure out how to respond, the study authors offer the following thought. "We observe that removing names from trip booking may alleviate the immediate problem but could introduce other pathways for unequal treatment of passengers."