Why black riders are not getting Uber pickups

A new study found a pattern of racial – and gender – discrimination among some Uber drivers when it came to passengers with African-American sounding names. 

Toby Melville/Illustration/Reuters
The Uber app logo is displayed on a cellphone in central London.

Uber drivers are more than twice as likely to cancel a ride if they believe that the passenger is black, according to a new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research. 

The NBER study, which analyzed roughly 1,500 rides through Uber and other ride-hailing platforms, found strong evidence of racial discrimination among Uber drivers when it came to African-American passengers. Passengers thought to be black with "African-American-sounding" names waited 35 percent longer for rides and were, in some areas, up to three times as likely to have their ride canceled compared to their white counterparts. 

"We theorize that at least some drivers for both UberX and Lyft discriminate on the basis of the perceived race of the traveler," said the researchers from Stanford University, the University of Washington, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who oversaw the study. They also noted that there was some evidence of gender discrimination, as female passengers in Boston were subjected to longer, and therefore more expensive, rides. 

The findings, which highlight a new generation of challenges that come with the rise of the "sharing economy," come months after Airbnb came under fire when nonwhite customers took to social media with the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack, claiming to have been denied accommodations based on their race. As Joseph Dussault reported for The Christian Science Monitor

The main advantage of the so-called "sharing economy" is also its greatest weakness: on platforms like Airbnb and Uber, users are both merchant and customer. These communities operate within legal gray areas and are mostly self-policing. So when a white renter (or driver) decides to refuse their services to a nonwhite patron, there are few measures in place to prevent it.

In response to the complaints, Airbnb announced a series of platform changes in September, which included downplaying user photos and an expansion of the service's instant booking program, which allows users to make a reservation without host approval. The company also introduced new internal rules to increase diversity among employees, mandating that all senior-level hiring pools include female and nonwhite candidates. 

"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 Uber study, to Bloomberg. "A lot of this is a learning process, and you can't expect these companies to have everything perfect right out of the gate."

Uber said in a statement Monday that "discrimination has no place in society, and no place on Uber," adding that the new information could lead to future improvements for the ride-hailing platform. 

"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." 

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