Credit: WallpaperFlare photo

It’s the all familiar story that Black New Yorkers have had to deal with for decades: not being able to hail a taxi. But as rideshare services have become the new normal alleviating the need to hail a cab, a new study suggests that drivers from Uber, Lyft and Via are participating in discriminatory practices when they find out who they’re picking up.

The study comes from the Indiana University Kelley School of Business and finds that racial bias persists in rideshare platforms. While the three top rideshare services remove information that could indicate a rider’s gender and race from initial ride requests, researchers found that biases against underrepresented groups continued to exist after drivers accepted a ride request—when the rider’s picture would then be displayed.

“Our results confirm that bias at the ride request stage has been removed. However, after ride acceptance, racial and LGBT biases are persistent, while we found no evidence of gender biases,” said Jorge Mejia, assistant professor of operations and decision technologies.

To put it simply, a Black rider, for example, would order a car on a rideshare app. The driver would then confirm the ride and the Black customer’s picture would then appear on the driver’s app while enroute to the customer. The research finds that at that moment, upon seeing the customer’s race, some drivers would cancel the ride leaving the Black customer to have to find another driver.

A field experiment was performed on a ridesharing platform in fall 2018 in Washington, D.C. Riders’ names were manually manipulated, using those traditionally perceived to be white or Black, as well as profile pictures to observe drivers’ behavior patterns in accepting and canceling rides.

Ride requests times varied to study whether peak price periods affected bias. The experiment found that higher prices associated with peak times alleviated some of the bias against riders.

New Yorker City has over 80,000 rideshare drivers. Rideshare services usage outweighs yellow cab usage. Some New Yorkers living in what are called “transit deserts” rely on rideshare services for short trips due to the lack of public transportation in some areas of the city.

“We found that underrepresented minorities are more than twice as likely to have a ride canceled than Caucasians; that’s about 3% versus 8%,” Mejia said. “There was no evidence of gender bias.”

Experts suggest ridesharing companies should use data to know the race of a rider when a driver cancels and penalize drivers for biased behavior. They also suggest punishing drivers by moving them down the priority list when they exhibit biased cancellation behavior, so they have fewer ride requests. Drivers who exhibit especially low cancellation rates for Black riders would receive “badges.”

Discrmination in rideshare services is another example of racism in the digital landscape. Other tech companies that require judgement from a human, like short-term rental service Airbnb, have come under fire for not doing enough to combat racial bias from property owners who sometimes refuse to rent to Black travelers.

“Investments in reducing bias may not occur organically, as ridesharing platforms are trying to maximize the number of participants in the platform—they want to attract both riders and drivers,” Mejia said. “As a result, it may be necessary for policymakers to mandate what information can be provided to a driver to ensure an unbiased experience, while maintaining the safety of everyone involved, or to create policies that require ridesharing platforms to monitor and remove drivers based on biased behavior.”

The AmNews reached out to rideshare companies Uber, Lyft and Via for comment about the study. None of them responded by press time.