Study: Some blacks and women pay more on Uber

SAN FRANCISCO — A research study that looked at differences in black and white riders’ wait and cancellation times using UberX and Lyft also found differences in distance and sometimes cost for women and for African-American riders.

Both women and African-Americans had slightly longer and therefore sometimes more expensive rides, the research published Monday found.

There was also a small increase in the distance for each route traveled by all riders when surge-pricing (increased rates due to higher demand) was in effect. Trips tended to last longer when the passenger was paying more than the standard rate.

Researchers used black and white, male and female university students to study the behavior of drivers for UberX and Lyft in Seattle and Boston. The study appeared Monday on the National Bureau of Economic Research website.

In Seattle, they found  the mean travel time for African-American UberX riders was about 8% longer in terms of time than the rides given white riders, even though the distances were not significantly different. A possible explanation given by Christopher Knittel, a professor of economics at MIT and one of the study authors, was that drivers and black passengers did not recognize one another as quickly at the pickup points, as Uber shares names, but not photos, with drivers.

It appeared that only a small proportion of drivers engaged in this behavior, they said.

Women hailing rides in Boston were driven on average 6% further than men, though no similar difference was found for black travelers.

The longer rides for women in Boston didn't always translate to higher costs because the routes chosen were short and many trips were close to the minimum price threshold, so additional travel distance did not always raise the cost above the minimum.

The effect was there but much less strong in Seattle. Don MacKenzie, another author on the paper and professor of transportation engineering at the University of Washington, attributes it to the fact that there are relatively few alternative routes to use in Seattle, whereas Boston has many narrow, winding streets.

"That kind of chicanery is easier in Boston," he said.

Anecdotally, the female students also reported that drivers who drove them via longer routers were also more chatty. As the researchers put it in their paper, the additional travel time "appears to be a combination of profiteering and flirting to a captive audience."

Elisa Kurzban, a 22-year-old math major at MIT, was one of the students who took part in the study.

"On one ride, the driver took me through the same intersection four times," she said. "On the third trip through I said 'I think we already went this way,' and he said he'd made a wrong turn. And then we went through it again."

That trip should have taken less than 10 minutes but ended up taking 25 and was significantly more expensive, she said.


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