The conventional wisdom on Uber and Lyft is that the ride-hail services are shortcuts for rich people, who take advantage of venture capital-subsidized rides at the expense of struggling gig economy workers.
Parts of that narrative are probably true. But a UCLA urban planning dissertation published this spring that looked at Uber and Lyft riders and drivers in the County of Los Angeles shows that the tale takes some interesting turns. Let’s start with the good news.
Urban planner Anne Brown looked at 6.3 million Lyft trips taken by 828,616 riders in LA county during the fall of 2016, and she found that the ride-hail service has picked up or dropped off passengers in more than 99 percent of neighborhoods—it didn’t just serve rich, white enclaves, or, as taxis tend to do, concentrate it dense, downtown areas. (Lyft, which is often very shy about sharing data with researchers and cities, provided Brown with the census tract of each trip’s origin and destination, plus the billing zip code for each rider. A UCLA spokesperson said Lyft did not provide any funding or have any editorial control over the final dissertation.)
Brown also found that, while Lyft adoption is greater in high-income neighborhoods, users in low-income neighborhoods accounted for more Lyft trips. In fact, high ride-hail use was more closely associated with access to a car than with income—if you don’t have a car, you’re more likely to use Lyft. Which is to say: Lyft appears to be a great option for Angelenos who need occasional access to a car, but either can’t afford one or don’t want the hassle of owning one. In a place like LA, where a car is essential to reaching jobs, schools, and all sorts of opportunities, ride-hail services have been useful.
Brown also found that Lyft served most of LA county’s population, no matter the neighborhood. Riders in black-majority neighborhoods took more trips than those living elsewhere—about 3.4 per month during the September-to-November period studied, compared to three trips for those traveling to or from majority-white neighborhoods, about three from Hispanic neighborhoods, and about 2.5 from Asian neighborhoods. (Hispanic neighborhoods had lower ride-hail use overall, which Brown theorizes may have something to do with lower rates of smartphone and formal banking in those communities.)
The researcher also created a natural experiment, a ride-hail “audit”. She modeled this part of the study off of earlier research from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which found that ride-hail drivers in Seattle took longer to pick up black passengers. Brown determined that, yes, there are still small disparities in pick-up times and cancellations for ride-hail riders of color. But the platforms are doing much, much better than the taxis that preceded them.
To conduct the audit, Brown sent 18 students, of different ethnicities but of the same age and wearing similar, jeans-n-a-t-shirt type outfits, out to catch 1,704 Uber and Lyft trips from two pick-up spots in Los Angeles during the fall of 2017. The disparities between taxi and ride-hail service were profound. Black taxi riders were 73 percent more likely to be cancelled on than white riders, and they waited 52 percent longer for a taxi—six to 15 minutes. (Most taxi cancellations happened because the dispatcher did not pick up the phone, or said no cars or taxis were available. Four occurred because taxi drivers refused service once they saw their rider.) Every one in four times that black riders requested a taxi, it never showed up.
Black ride-hail riders, however, waited up to 1 minute and 43 seconds longer than their white counterparts—still an ugly disparity, but much better than taxis. And black ride-hail riders experienced way fewer cancellations than taxi riders, though still slightly more than their white, Hispanic, or Asian counterparts.
“Despite the regulations on taxis, discrimination is still rampant,” Brown told reporters this month. “By contrast, though Uber and Left don’t erase the gap, they narrow it considerably, which greatly improves access to for-hire vehicles, and access to cars for those who may need it the most.” She suggested ride-hail companies could work to eliminate discrimination entirely by nixing rider photos from the app and giving every passenger a pseudonym—but those are moves the companies say could threaten driver safety.
Still, both companies said they hope to use Brown’s work to improve their service, and reiterated that discrimination is against their platforms’ rules.
If Lyft and Uber drivers do show some bias, well, unfortunately their riders do, too. Brown found that while riders in LA’s lower-income areas were more likely to use Lyft Line, the company’s cheaper ride-sharing service, Angelenos were less likely to share cars if they lived in racial or ethnically diverse neighborhoods. That suggests riders are not so comfortable with sharing cars with people who are not like them.
It’s very possible that the technology really is making the world better. Brown hypothesizes that Uber and Lyft drivers might be less discriminatory because their services are cashless, which makes them less appealing targets for robbery. These drivers might simply be less nervous going about their jobs.
Plus, Brown says, the ratings system works as a judge of moral character. Riders are rated, just like drivers. And if a rider has a habit of trying to rob Uber drivers, chances are she’ll have a really miserable Uber rating—and a company happy to point law enforcement to a recent billing address. If a driver has a knack for only canceling rides requested by riders with Asian-sounding names, the company should be able to catch that. In theory, these companies are a lot like Santa Claus. They can track who’s naughty and who’s nice.
Which is not to say that ratings are the perfect arbiters of ethical behavior. Perhaps a rider’s rating is low not because she’s unpleasant, or untrustworthy, but because she speaks a language a few drivers don’t like. Ratings are difficult in that way, whether it’s on ride-hailing platforms or on Amazon or in online dating. It’s something those companies should be thinking about, and deeply.
But for Angelenos who couldn’t convince taxi drivers to take them home safely, this is a pretty good start.
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