Uber drivers in Boston are more than twice as likely to cancel a ride when their passenger has an “African American sounding” name, according to a study published Monday by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and the University of Washington.
The study, which looked at racial and gender discrimination by transportation companies, took into account more than 1,400 individual cases in which research assistants ordered, waited for and took rides primarily with Uber and Lyft in both the Boston and Seattle markets.
One experiment within the study found that black people waited as much as 35 percent longer for rides in Seattle. In Boston, a separate experiment found that across all trips, the cancelation rate for passengers using “African American sounding” names with Uber was more than twice as often compared to when the same passengers used “white sounding” names.
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"The patterns of discrimination were quite clear and consistent in both cities—and one can only assume it's happening all across the country in other markets," said Christopher R. Knittel, one of the study's authors and a professor at the MIT Sloan School of management, in a news release. "The study has found major areas of racial discrimination within this new industry. It's quite concerning."
To reduce the rate of discrimination, researchers suggested that Uber and Lyft stop showing the names and/or photos of the riders to the drivers before an order is confirmed. Knittel, in an interview with the Metro, said that some people pushed back on this suggestion because it would make these rides less personal.
Rachel Holt, head of the North American operations for Uber, said in a news release that ridesharing apps are meant to change a transportation scene that has been “unequal for generations,” by making it easier and more affordable to get around.
“Discrimination has no place in society, and no place on Uber,” she said. “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.”
Knittel appreciated that response from Uber and said that he thinks “that’s the right attitude to have.”
Though the study mentions both Uber and Lyft, it concluded that there was no functional impact on communities of color with Lyft, said Adrian Durbin, the company's director of policy communications.
"We are extremely proud of the positive impact Lyft has on communities of color," she said. "Because of Lyft, people living in underserved areas—which taxis have historically neglected—are now able to access convenient, affordable rides."
Lyft doesn't tolerate any form of discrimination, Durbin said.
Knittel noted that he and the other researchers want to stress that they are not saying Uber and Lyft are any worse than the taxicab industry.
“It’s more that Uber and Lyft can be better," he said.
The study found documented discrimination when it comes to taking taxis as well. In Seattle, they found that if the customer was white, the first cab passed them 20 percent of the time. If the customer was black, the first cab passed them 60 percent of the time.
“It’s very difficult to do an apples-to-apples comparison of which is better or which is worse,” Knittel said. “Our focus is more on how can these services improve upon themselves.”