Did Uber Just Enable Discrimination by Destination?

If you call an Uber to bring you to a low-income neighborhood in Oakland or Los Angeles, you might have to wait longer than you used to—and it’s possible you won’t be matched with a driver at all. These are potential consequences of changes Uber quietly announced in its driver platform in California last week. Drivers in that state will now be able to see each would-be passenger’s destination upfront—before the ride is accepted. As a result, California cities could now have a new ride-hailing worry to add to their growing list: discrimination based on a rider’s destination.

Some context: Historically, ride-hail drivers have been able to see just the origin—not the destination—of a requested trip before deciding whether to accept it. Only when a trip begins will a driver know if a passenger wants to travel one mile or ten (longer trips are generally more lucrative), or whether the journey will end in a wealthy neighborhood or a low-income one. Although drivers have grumbled about their inability to know destinations ex ante, the status quo helped insulate ride-hailing companies from the accusations of discrimination that have dogged the taxi industry for decades. Because requested destinations are hidden, it’s been hard for a ride-hail driver to avoid servicing a particular neighborhood.

But Uber’s calculus shifted in September after California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the worker-rights bill AB5, which will make many gig workers and independent contractors eligible for benefits and force ride-hail companies to treat its drivers more like employees. Uber and Lyft vehemently oppose applying AB5 to their businesses, and they want to bolster their case as they challenge AB5 in courts and at the ballot box. (They’re also worried other states could follow California’s lead). But it’s been difficult for ride-hailing companies to claim that drivers are contractors making informed, independent workplace decisions when key information like passenger destination is being hidden from them.

Last week Uber changed its stance, announcing the changes in a blog post aimed at California drivers that referred obliquely to AB5: “With the passage of new laws, we’ve been carefully considering how we could further…enhance the flexibility and transparency of the Uber platform.” The company explained that California drivers will, for the first time, see a trip’s requested destination before they accept or decline it. What’s more, drivers can now decline as many requested trips as they like without losing access to rewards like discounted car repair—bonuses available through the Uber Pro program.

These changes could strengthen Uber’s position on AB5 and help build goodwill with drivers, whose job satisfaction has been falling. Harry Campbell, a former driver who founded The Rideshare Guy blog, says that Uber drivers in California can now make more efficient decisions whether to accept trips: “Seeing the destination lets drivers determine if the ride is going to be profitable, which depends on a trip’s length, and the distance you have to travel to pick up the passenger.”

But these benefits for drivers also open the door to rider discrimination. The danger is that some drivers could capitalize on their new access to destination information to systematically decline trips to low-income or minority neighborhoods, much as taxis have a history of doing. A nightmare scenario for cities could involve minority, low-income residents waiting longer to take an Uber home after a late shift (which are more common among low-income workers), and being at a greater risk of finding no available drivers at all.

There are economic reasons why this could happen. Campbell says that many drivers sense there are fewer ride-hail customers in lower income neighborhoods, making an empty return trip more likely after a dropoff. More overt racism could also play a role; a 2016 National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study found that Uber drivers in Boston were around three times more likely to cancel trips from male riders with African American sounding names.

“There is definitely a risk for low-income communities,” Campbell says. “It’s something city officials will need to watch out for.”

The majority of transportation officials I contacted for this piece were unaware of Uber’s changes to its platform, which the company seems to have publicized only to its drivers. But those who knew about the policy shift expressed concern.  

Jeffrey Tumlin, the incoming director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, says that “allowing drivers to choose trips based on destination creates the opportunity for actual and unconscious racial bias, which could result in all the mobility gains created by Uber and Lyft to be lost for people of color.” While Tumlin sees potential operational improvements from drivers accessing better destination information, “I will not trade off equity for efficiency.”

But local officials like Tumlin have limited tools to challenge Uber; most ride-hail supervision in California happens at the state level. That’s not the case in New York, where leaders have been considering legislation similar to AB5.

Meera Joshi, a visiting scholar at New York University who previously led the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, believes that government may need to step in because riders can’t tell if they’re struggling to hail an Uber home because drivers keep declining their trip request (it’s a lot easier to spot discrimination when a taxi drives away after asking your destination). If Joshi were a ride hail regulator in California—or any other place where Uber implemented these changes—she says “the first thing I would do is ensure I have good information to monitor whether this is going to have a discriminatory effect.” That would likely entail collecting and analyzing data about ride-hail refusal rates by requested destination—something regulators have never before needed to do.

An Uber spokesperson declined to comment on potential impacts on riders from its driver platform changes beyond highlighting the company’s Community Guidelines, which state “it is not acceptable to discriminate on the basis of a rider’s destination or a customer’s delivery location.” It’s worth noting, however, how the company has responded to previous discrimination claims. In Atlanta, for example, the local CBS TV news station recently ran a story about supposed ride-hail “no-go zones.” The story included Uber’s response that “drivers cannot see a rider’s destination to help prevent discrimination.” That, of course, is exactly the safeguard that Uber is removing in California. The company would not comment on whether it will expand its driver platform changes to other states in the future.

Uber’s U.S. rival Lyft, for its part, has so far charted a different course: A spokesman said the company has no plans to change its policy of concealing destination location from drivers until a ride begins. (Certain Lyft drivers can see cardinal directions and durations of requested trips, but not destinations.)

For the moment, concerns about increases in rider discrimination linked directly to this policy change are entirely speculative; it’s possible that Uber can achieve its goals of pleasing drivers and buttressing its defense against AB5 without having a disparate impact on urban residents’ mobility. But Stephen Zoepf, a lecturer at Stanford who coauthored the NBER study of ride-hail discrimination, isn’t convinced. “I can almost guarantee you this will have unintended consequences,” he says.

Cities, you’ve been warned.

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