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Uber-ing while black can be a bumpy ride

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The online economy might make life smoother in many ways, but when it comes to racial discrimination, it might be business as usual.

Black passengers wait longer for Uber rides and are more likely to have their rides canceled than passengers with white-sounding names, according to a new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The findings, from researchers at Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Washington, are based data from 1,500 rides taken by black and white students in Seattle and Boston.

Taxi services have long been criticized for discriminatory behavior toward blacks. For example, Los Angeles cracked down on taxi drivers earlier this year after finding that they turned down 20 percent of ride requests from black undercover police officers. Ride-hailing operations such as Uber were supposed to sidestep racial bias by using apps to connect riders to drivers, but the research suggests that color-blind service isn’t a reality there, either.

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“New research by my lab at the University of Washington and collaborators at MIT and Stanford has found that racial and, to a lesser degree, gender discrimination continue to be problems in the transportation sector,” researcher Don MacKenzie, an assistant professor at University of Washington, wrote in a blog post about his research. “There is a long and shameful history of taxis discriminating against black passengers, whether by refusing to stop for them, or avoiding entire neighborhoods altogether.”

MacKenzie noted that the researchers believe the discrimination is coming from the individual drivers, who are decentralized, and that it doesn’t reflect bias on the part of the companies themselves, such as Uber or Lyft.

There were significant differences between Uber and Lyft, two of the services that were tested in the study. Black passengers in Seattle waited about 30 percent longer to be picked up by Uber than white travelers, although the report didn’t notice any difference for Lyft travelers.

In Uber rides within Boston, the study found that male passengers using black-sounding names had a cancellation rate that was more than twice that of those with white-sounding names. Women with black-sounding names saw a cancellation rate of 8.4 percent, compared with 5.4 percent when they used a white-sounding name.

One major differences between the services comes down to how the rides are booked. Uber drivers see the passenger’s name and photo only after they accept a ride request, while Lyft users see both the name and photo before they make a decision, the study noted.

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Lyft said it does “not tolerate any form of discrimination,” while Uber said discrimination “has no place in society, and no place on Uber.”

“Uber is helping reduce transportation inequities across the board, but studies like this one are helpful in thinking about how we can do even more,” said Rachel Holt, head of Uber’s North American operations in a statement.

How could ride-hailing services eliminate racial bias among their drivers? Some suggestions from the researchers include providing a unique passcode for passengers, rather than names and photos, and occasional audits of drivers who appear to be discriminating against some passengers.

Interestingly, it was’t only racial minorities who were treated differently. Women also suffered. The researchers found that drivers took slightly longer routes for women and sometimes started the fare before she entered the car or ended it after she departed.

“Other female riders reported ‘chatty’ drivers who drove extremely long routes, on some occasions even driving through the same intersection multiple times,” the paper found. “As a result, the additional travel that female riders are exposed to appears to be a combination of profiteering and flirting to a captive audience.”