SAN FRANCISCO — African-American travelers wait as much as 30% longer for UberX rides, and people with African-American sounding names had their UberX trips canceled at twice the rate of those with white-sounding names, a study released Monday found.
Though the actual difference in wait times was small, on average 90 seconds, it is another reminder the online economy still mirrors a flawed world.
“Technology was supposed to be a tool that mitigated discrimination because it’s based on algorithms rather than subjective expectations. But we see that doesn’t always happen,” said Darrick Hamilton, a professor of economics and urban policy at The New School in New York City.
Researchers at the University of Washington, Stanford University and MIT used black and white university students to study the behavior of drivers for UberX and Lyft. All told, they took nearly 1,500 rides on controlled routes. The tests were conducted in Seattle and Boston.
In Seattle, African-American riders using UberX waited approximately 30% longer to be picked up than white riders. Black riders waited on average 5:15 minutes while white riders waited 4 minutes.
The researchers suggested drivers may have taken longer to identify black riders at pickup, adding to the wait time. Uber drivers do not see riders' photos, only their names.
There were no statistically significant differences in waiting times for Lyft users.
In Boston, the study compared riders of multiple races could plausibly have been either black or white. They were given two accounts on each service, one with an African-American-sounding name and one with a white-sounding name.
When they tried to hail rides with a black-sounding name, the ride cancellation rate was double that of those using white-sounding names, 10.1% vs. 4.9%.
"Going from almost never having a ride canceled to having one in six of your trips canceled is going from 'Very convenient' to 'This is a pain in the butt,'" said Don MacKenzie, an author of the paper and professor of transportation engineering at the University of Washington.
Despite the differences, Black Seattleites or Bostonians using African-Americans-sounding names didn't have a perceptible increase in average wait times, probably because the network of drivers in both cities is so dense there were always other drivers available, the researchers said.
Uber and Lyft emphasized that they do not tolerate discrimination and their belief that ride-sharing apps make transportation more equitable and available than taxis.
That was borne out when researchers had students hail cabs in downtown Seattle. The first available taxi stopped 60% of the time for a white student but less than 20% of the time for black students. The white students never had more than four taxis pass them before one stopped. African-American students saw six or seven cabs pass them in 20% of cases.
“We believe 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 North American operations for the company.