African-Americans waiting on taxis in Los Angeles are likely to face longer wait times and have a greater chance of being canceled on than whites, Asians and Hispanics, according to a new study out Wednesday from UCLA.
They also faced longer wait times and more cancellations with Lyft and Uber, though far less so than with taxis, according to "Ridehail Revolution: Ridehail Travel and Equity in Los Angeles," a doctoral dissertation by Anne Brown of UCLA's Institute for Transportation Studies.
Taxi drivers in L.A. were 73 percent more likely to cancel on black riders than whites, and one-quarter of blacks were never sent a cab, according to the research, which had 18 UCLA students of different ethnicities hail 1,704 trips between October and December 2017. Black riders also waited 52 percent longer than whites for taxis.
The study lands amid a national conversation about how African-Americans face bias in everyday interactions, from waiting at a Starbucks to hosting a picnic, and as gig economy companies confront ways their platforms enable users – from drivers to Airbnb hosts – to persist in discriminatory practices that violate their policies.
In 7 percent of the trips taken by the students, Lyft drivers cancelled on black riders, compared with 5 percent of Asians/Hispanics and 3 percent of whites. Uber drivers (who see only a name once the trip is accepted) canceled on black riders 6 percent of the time, Asians/Hispanics 3 percent and whites 2 percent.
In contrast, taxis canceled rides on blacks 26 percent of the time, Asians/Hispanics 20 percent and whites 14 percent.
"From an equality point of view, there's some way to go before the gap between riders is truly erased, but it's far narrower with ride-hailing, and with some policy changes, (Uber and Lyft) could erase the racial gap between riders entirely," Brown told USA TODAY. "Taxis don't have great accountability."
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Two years ago, a study showed riders with African-American sounding names had their UberX trips canceled at twice the rate of those with white-sounding names.
Uber and Lyft drivers have the opportunity to cancel on rides for a range of reasons, although they are discouraged from doing so.
Bias based on the passenger's name or photo could play out in the first few moments of a rider hailing a car. A driver can cancel as soon as the rider's first name – and in the case of Lyft, also their photo – popped up after the driver accepts the ride request. That ride would then roll over to the next car in the immediate area, extending the customer's wait time.
The two ride-hailing companies long have defended their policies of revealing rider names on safety and convenience grounds, while lawmakers such as then-senator Al Franken have pressed the companies to be more aggressive about monitoring drivers for discrimination.
Both Lyft and Uber have policies that prohibit driver or rider discrimination based on race, religion, nationality, disability, sexual orientation, gender or age.
After the 2016 study was released, Lyft announced that it would begin tracking driver behavior more carefully, but in a statement to USA TODAY did not indicate if it had made specific strides in the area. Lyft provided Brown with data about neighborhood ride penetration for the study.
Uber said it was working with the 2016 study's authors to better understand the results in order to reduce incidents of discrimination, adding that the service "has improved access to transportation in historically underserved communities and reduced the potential for discrimination," Uber spokesman Andrew Hasbun told USA TODAY. "While there’s more work to do, we are committed to serving all communities around the world.”
Lyft's Joseph Okpaku, vice president of policy, echoed that sentiment.
"This (study), and similar research, is important for all parties involved in the transportation industry," Okpaku told USA TODAY. "We are proud of the advancements Lyft has made in expanding access to transportation for passengers from all walks of life, and particularly from historically underserved communities."
Taxis kept blacks waiting longer
Brown's study shows that black riders waited about a minute longer for Uber and Lyft than other races. The gap was wider for taxis, which had a mean total wait time of 30 minutes for blacks, 24 minutes for Asians/Hispanics and 20 minutes for whites.
In 1 in 4 instances, when her black students requested a taxi one never arrived. She also said that a few times black male students were asked to pay cash up front for their taxi rides.
"The fact that any of this (bias) exists in L.A. means it likely exists everywhere else," Brown said. "When you're looking at a 1 in 4 chance that your taxi might not even arrive, how can you count on that to get to work or for child care?"
Bias among drivers could be a thing of the past if robot taxis come to pass, with a growing number of companies working to enable self-driving cars for ride-hailing fleets.
But tech experts say the concern there, as with any human-built tech, is whether the biases of the technology's engineers can creep into the finished product.
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