Study: Uber, Lyft Drivers Discriminate Against Blacks with 'African American-Sounding Names'

Researchers found that ride-sourcing companies are not exempt from practicing racial discrimination.

By Sheryl Estrada

Uber and Lyft drivers discriminate against Blacks with frequency especially Black males with “African American-sounding names,” according to a new study. The new ride-sourcing phenomenon hasn’t served as a break from the transportation industry’s history of racial discrimination.

“Racial and Gender Discrimination in Transportation Network Companies,” released on Monday, was conducted by researchers at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Stanford University and the University of Washington.

“The study has found major areas of racial discrimination within this new industry,” Christopher R. Knittel, an author and a professor at the MIT Sloan School of management, said in a statement. “It’s quite concerning.”

The study relied on more than 1,400 individual cases of research assistants ordering, waiting for and taking actual rides in Seattle and Boston with transportation network companies (TNCs), primarily Uber and Lyft.

The times, days, routes and riders (some of whom were Black, some white) were randomly selected. The researchers monitored various performance metrics at each stage of every trip.

Significant findings:

– One experiment found that in Seattle, African American passengers had consistently longer waiting times as much as a 35 percent increase.

– In Boston, an experiment found that after accepting a ride order on the app, an Uber driver is two times more likely to cancel the trip when seeing the person has an “African American-sounding name” rather than a person with a white-sounding name. (Lyft drivers can see a passenger’s name and photo before accepting a ride, which could be why the cancellation rate is higher with Uber.)

– Black male passengers with African American-sounding names were mostly likely to have their trip cancelled.

“Male passengers requesting a ride in low-density areas were more than three times as likely to have their trip canceled when they used an African American-sounding name than when they used a white-sounding name,” researchers stated.

Related Story: Airbnb Responds to Racism by Tweaking Anti-Bias Policies for Hosts

The study also found evidence that drivers took female passengers for longer, more expensive rides in Boston.

“The random field tests we conducted, with actual research assistants ordering and taking rides in two cities, are considered the ‘gold standard’ for tests measuring such human activities,” Stephen Zoepf, an author and the executive director of the Stanford University Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University and a post-doctoral researcher at MIT, said in a statement. “We’re very confident in, though disappointed by, the validity of the results we found.”


Uber, Lyft Board of Directors and Advisors

“This discrimination is not the result of any policy by ride hailing providers, but rather the behavior of individual TNC drivers” the authors stated in the study.

Logan Green is the co-founder and CEO of Lyft. There is only one woman who is a Lyft board member, and there are no Black men or women members.

The CEO and cofounder of Uber is Travis Kalanick. Its board members and advisors are ethnically diverse (but are mostly male), except for Black men there are none.

David Plouffe has been a chief advisor, a board member and VP of policy and strategy at Uber since 2014. Plouffe, a political strategist, is a former Obama administration senior adviser.

During an interview session in August at the National Association of Black Journalists/National Association of Hispanic Journalists conference in Washington, D.C., Plouffe talked about how underserved communities have provided good business for Uber.

He admitted that the company’s founders did not intentionally formulate large plans to connect underserved neighborhoods to major city centers. But Uber realizes its significance as a solution to disparities in transportation options facing minority and low-income neighborhoods.

Plouffe said working at Uber has clued him in to the disparities in transportation options.

“I admit I didn’t realize as much when I was in government I am ashamed by that until I got into the private sector,” he saidin August.”Why should it be that if you live in one part of the city it takes you 30 minutes to get a ride, and if you live in a wealthier area it takes three minutes”

According to the recent study, an app might not discriminate, but its drivers can, much like taxi drivers.

Similar to Taxi Discrimination

In 1999, actor Danny Glover took on the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission. He said because he was Black, five yellow cabs in a single day refused to stop for him, his daughter and her roommate. And when a taxi driver finally did stop, he refused to allow Glover to ride in the front passenger seat.

“The fact that I’m a celebrity, the fact that I’m visible, allows me to draw attention to this,” Glover said at a news conference in October 1999.

Ten years later, in 2009, ABC’s “Good Morning America” (GMA) produced a three-part series called “Black and White Now,” which tackled racial profiling.

GMA conducted an experiment with a white and Black man at the same time. It uncovered that, at nighttime, there’s increased discrimination by taxi drivers:

“The first taxi the men tried to get passed directly by the Black man to pick up the Caucasian man. Then minutes later, it happened again with another cab. It was the same story uptown and three out of the 10 cabs hailed at night passed up the Black man.”

The authors of “Racial and Gender Discrimination in Transportation Network Companies” said the discrimination they documented among TNCs is not necessarily worse than the current taxi system.

“In the Seattle experiment, we also document racial discrimination among conventional taxis, so we aren’t taking a stand on which system is better or worse,” Knittel said. “But, our study illustrates that discrimination among TNC drivers is occurring and we point to ways TNC companies can reduce this discrimination.”


Lyft drivers can see the passenger’s name and photo before accepting the ride. Researchers recommend eliminating that practice. And for Uber, showing the names of riders once a driver accepts a ride order should end.

“Though completely eliminating discrimination is likely impossible, there are steps TNCs can voluntarily take to minimize service bias against minorities,” Don MacKenzie, an author and an assistant professor within the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington, said in a statement. “We hope TNC companies take positive steps to address these problems.”

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