Advocates for minorities and low-income people fear that Uber’s recent overhaul of its ride processes could lead to discrimination against people traveling to neighborhoods some drivers perceive as less desirable.
Drivers can now decline to take passengers to San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point or East Oakland, for instance — areas already underserved by transportation.
Uber last week gave California drivers much more autonomy, including the ability to know every ride’s destination in advance and to reject ride requests without penalty. The changes are Uber’s attempt to shield itself from being forced to reclassify drivers as employees under the state’s new gig-work law, AB5, but some outside groups say the overhaul creates conditions for prejudicial treatment.
“We fear this new system could only exacerbate discrimination,” said Hana Creger, environmental equity program manager at Oakland’s Greenlining Institute, which promotes racial and economic justice. “Drivers could refuse to go to certain neighborhoods they deem as unsafe.”
Uber is aware of the increased potential for bias and said it will closely monitor trips for destination discrimination.
“Rejecting requests for discriminatory reasons, including rejecting trips solely to avoid particular neighborhoods, violates Uber’s Community Guidelines and California law,” it wrote in a blog post to drivers announcing the new ride processes.
Lyft has not matched Uber’s change, so Lyft drivers still cannot see their riders’ destinations.
Despite Uber’s assurances, advocates for minorities remain concerned.
“We have well-developed patterns of racial exclusion in the U.S., whether housing, land use policy or transportation,” said Bob Allen, director of the transportation justice program at Oakland’s Urban Habitat, a nonprofit advocating for historically disenfranchised communities. “Folks of color, particularly black folks, are not able to get a taxi pickup as often in their neighborhoods. I think it would also be an issue” under Uber’s new policies.
A related issue is that drivers might reject less-lucrative short-hop trips, something that seniors and others with mobility issues rely upon. However, that might be mitigated since Uber provides incentives for drivers to complete a certain number of trips within a certain time frame. Uber said it has not seen high rejection rates for short trips since the changes.
Clarrissa Cabansagan, new mobility policy director at TransForm, an Oakland nonprofit working on climate and mobility justice issues, said that independent analysis would be the best way to track destination discrimination.
San Francisco required applicants for its scooter and bike street-rental permits to explain how they’d serve communities of concern and provide ongoing data on that, she noted. (TransForm worked with bike-rental company Motivate, now owned by Lyft, on its inclusion plans and with Lyft on its unsuccessful scooter application.)
But while the city has the authority to regulate bikes and scooters on its streets, it lacks jurisdiction over Uber and Lyft. They are regulated at the state level by the California Public Utilities Commission. That agency requires the companies to provide annual reports on ZIP codes served, but spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said the data are not used to track changes in service by areas.
The agency “is always focused on ensuring nondiscriminatory practices by the entities it regulates and utilizes all of its tools and resources to meeting that end,” Prosper said.
Uber has started its own studies.
Because the changes were phased in starting in December, the company could compare drivers who knew destinations with those who didn’t. It said it looked at acceptance rates for trips going to Bay Area locations identified as communities of concern by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and did not find any differences in acceptance rates or arrival times.
“So far, we have seen no indication that drivers are accepting trips to disadvantaged areas any less frequently than other areas because of this change, but we are keeping a close eye as these changes roll out more fully across the state,” Uber said.
Passengers who want to complain about discrimination or other ride-hailing issues can contact the state agency at CIU_intake@cpuc.ca.gov or 800-894-9444. They should also contact Uber via the app so it can track their complaints with their accounts, Uber said. While passengers are aware when a driver cancels an accepted trip, they won’t know if a driver rejects their ride request because it will get passed on to other drivers until the company finds someone who accepts it. The rejections would manifest in longer wait times, which could best be tracked by Uber or outside observers monitoring control groups.
Cabansagan said the issues could be nuanced — drivers might reject ride requests because they’re tired and don’t want to drive too far, for instance.
“As a person of color who understands sensitivities about white folks feeling the hood is dangerous, you can’t just automatically assume that cancellations/rejections equal racism, but you can do digging,” she said.
Access to timely, affordable transportation is a lifeline for people who need to get to school, work, stores and doctors. In outlying neighborhoods with fewer public transit options, ride-hailing has improved residents’ mobility.
“We see a lot of our communities in disadvantaged neighborhoods use Uber and Lyft because transit is so infrequent,” Cabansagan said. “That benefits people who otherwise might spend more than a third of their income on a vehicle.”
Ride “redlining” by taxi drivers is already well documented nationwide.
Hansu Kim, owner of Flywheel Taxi, San Francisco’s second-largest fleet with 300 cabs, said that is no longer an issue.
“In the past, without a doubt, neighborhoods in lower-income areas were not served as well,” he said. “Today that’s nonexistent. The loss of rides for the taxi industry (due to Uber and Lyft) has been so extreme that any ride a taxi driver gets, they’re going to take. Even in the worst parts of the city where traditionally there was discrimination in the past, (passengers are) getting picked up very quickly.”
In contrast to taxis, Uber and Lyft have long promoted that ride-hailing reduces discrimination because drivers don’t know passengers’ names or destinations.
“New transportation options like Uber add a reliable and affordable option to the transportation ecosystem for low-income neighborhoods,” the company wrote in a 2015 blog post touting a study it financed that found that its rides in underserved areas cost less and arrived faster than taxis.
But some researchers have found that ride-hailing still suffers from racial profiling, even before Uber’s recent changes.
Passengers with names that sounded stereotypically African American were more likely to have rides canceled and to have longer waits for pickups than people with white-sounding names, according to a 2018 UCLA doctoral dissertation based on a three-year study in Los Angeles. (Drivers don’t see passenger names until after accepting trip requests.) Cancellation rates and wait times for black riders were even higher on taxi rides.
“I think there’s a very real chance of (Uber’s new policy) potentially increasing discrimination,” said thesis author Anne Brown, now an assistant professor of planning, public policy and management at the University of Oregon.
“The taxi industry is the best way to see consequences of a very similar policy: Taxis can see destinations of riders before accepting trips and we’ve seen that low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color are very poorly served by taxis,” she said. “In interviews, drivers say, ‘We don’t want to serve those neighborhoods, they’re dangerous, we won’t get a trip back.’”
She’s also concerned about a potential “snowball” effect — if drivers won’t accept trips going to neighborhoods of concern, then there will be a lower supply of drivers for outgoing trips from those areas.
Brown agrees that monitoring is one way to safeguard against bias.
“People change their behavior when they know someone is watching,” she said. “That element is important to retain.”