Uber, Lyft respond to accusations of discrimination on ride-hailing platforms

Uber, Lyft respond to accusations of discrimination on ride-hailing platforms
A driver displaying Lyft and Uber stickers on his windshield drops off a passenger in downtown Los Angeles, Calif. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
AP Photo/Richard Vogel/FileA driver displaying Lyft and Uber stickers on his windshield drops off a passenger in downtown Los Angeles, Calif. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
By MARISA KENDALL | mkendall@bayareanewsgroup.com
PUBLISHED: December 30, 2016 at 1:00 pm | UPDATED: December 30, 2016 at 1:34 pm
SAN FRANCISCO — Two months after a report found African-American passengers were subjected to bias on ride-hailing platforms, Uber and Lyft say they are taking steps to address those concerns.

Pressed by a U.S. senator to explain how they prevent their drivers from discriminating against minority passengers, both ride-hailing companies said they have strong anti-bias policies in place — which they recently reiterated to drivers — and promised to look into doing more.

“While no single technology can eliminate bias in society, we always strive toward a better experience for all of our customers,” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick wrote in a letter to Democratic Sen. Al Franken from Minnesota. “In light of that goal, and the survey’s findings, we are committed to examining any root issues and possible product mitigations.”

The news highlights a tricky issue faced by sharing-economy companies, which try to prevent racism on their platforms without taking full responsibility for their users’ actions. Airbnb earlier this year unveiled new anti-discrimination measures after an outpouring of complaints from guests who said they were denied a place to stay based on their race or gender identity.

Franken wrote letters to Uber and Lyft in early November after a study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research found African-American passengers in Seattle and Boston waited longer to get rides and were more likely to have their trips canceled. The senator asked the ride-hailing companies to explain how they would address these issues, requesting answers no later than Dec. 16. Uber and Lyft responded Nov. 30 and Dec. 16, respectively (with Lyft just barely making the senator’s deadline), and Franken released the letters to the public this week.

Uber said it has met with the researchers who conducted the discrimination study, and the company looks forward to “continuing the conversation.” Uber also promised to experiment with new ways to guard against discrimination and to review how it notifies drivers of its nondiscrimination policy.

Lyft vowed to start studying ride cancellations in communities with a high concentration of minority residents.

“Lyft takes allegations of discrimination extremely seriously,” Lyft co-founder and CEO Logan Green wrote. “Any discrepancy of service experienced by passengers due to race is unacceptable. The gains in transportation equity that have been realized over the last few years since the widespread introduction of ridesharing cannot be our ceiling; instead they have to be our floor.”

Both companies stressed that drivers will be booted from the apps if they discriminate against passengers based on race, religion, gender or any other attribute protected by law. And they emphasized that ride-hailing platforms bring transportation options to underserved communities, which often are communities of color.

Lyft also pointed out that the study found minuscule differences in the wait times for African-American and white passengers using the Lyft app.

And the ride-hailing study found that unlike Uber drivers, Lyft drivers in Boston did not cancel rides for African-American riders more frequently — possibly because Lyft let drivers see the name and photo of passengers as soon as they requested a ride, allowing the driver to determine the rider’s race before accepting the ride.

The researchers who conducted the discrimination study had suggested Uber and Lyft hide riders’ names and photos from drivers, thereby making it more difficult for drivers to reject or cancel trips based on race. But both companies rejected that idea, arguing that sharing that information ensures a more friendly trip and increases passenger safety by making sure riders don’t get into the wrong car.

Airbnb rejected similar advice, instead promising to experiment with making guests’ photos less prominent.