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Racial bias remains problematic for Uber and Lyft, MIT study finds


By Laurie Fullerton | Freelance Writer

October 31, 2016 | 3 min read

Boston Uber drivers reportedly turned down passengers based on a photo or a 'black-sounding name' twice as often as average states a study published by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and the University of Washington.

Uber image
Uber image

The in depth study also found that in Seattle, racial differences meant notably longer wait times for a car using Uber and Lyft.

The study, reported by Bloomberg today, was conducted in Seattle and Boston, and included almost 1,500 rides using four black and four white research assistants— equally male and female — who ordered cars over six weeks in Seattle.

A second test was held in Boston with riders "whose appearance allowed them to plausibly travel as a passenger of either race," although they used either "African American sounding" or "white sounding" names, the researchers said. It found that Uber drivers disproportionately canceled on riders with black-sounding names, even though the company penalizes drivers who cancel frequently.

Reseachers believe that names and photos are an issue. Such information gives drivers the means to discriminate against prospective riders. Uber doesn't show customer photos to drivers. Lyft does, but passengers aren't required to provide a headshot. Both San Francisco-based companies give riders' names to their drivers however.

"In many ways, the sharing economy is making it up as they go along," said Christopher Knittel, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and an author of the study. "A lot of this is a learning process, and you can't expect these companies to have everything perfect right out of the gate."

A new generation of sharing companies have begun to grapple with how they can minimize racial discrimination. Airbnb recently released an extensive report studying racial bias on the site and proposed some changes to its policies. In turn, Airbnb is asking its hosts to agree to a community commitment position that does not discriminate. Airbnb hosts must sign the commitment or lose their status as an Airbnb host, the email to its hosts says today.

The researchers proposed changes that Uber and Lyft could make to reduce discrimination, including not identifying passengers' names, more severe repercussions for drivers who cancel after accepting a ride and periodic reviews of drivers' behavior to look for racism. However, Knittel acknowledged in an interview that there are advantages to providing personal information, such as creating a friendlier and more efficient experience. "There's a trade-off here," he said. "There is a potential benefit from showing names and photos, and yeah, I think we would agree with that. These companies have to weigh those two effects."

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