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2 UW Studies Show How Ride-App Drivers In Seattle Do And Don't Discriminate

Jeff Chiu

Two recent studies from the University of Washington provide some insight into the ways drivers for companies like Uber and Lyft may discriminate against certain passengers in the Seattle area.

Researchers say there's good news and there's bad news. In one study published in this month's Journal of Transportation Geography, researchers found that app-based ride-hailing service was actually faster in lower-income neighborhoods.

Don MacKenzie is a civil and environmental engineering professor at the UW and one of the authors on both studies. His team is looking at different ways drivers might discriminate against riders. One of those ways is where drivers choose to go.

"We were really excited to find that a short wait time for Uber is not necessarily restricted to areas that are white and wealthy," MacKenzie said.

Another way drivers might discriminate is who they decide to pick up.  In another paper released on Monday, MacKenzie and his team show that drivers in Seattle may decline trips from riders with black-sounding names more often than from riders with white-sounding names. The study also looked at drivers in Boston, where researchers saw similar patterns. 

MacKenzie said it's important to look at the equity of ride-app services because they are sometimes seen as a way to fix historical transportation problems.

"It's almost a cliche that taxi drivers discriminate against black travelers," MacKenzie said. "There's this history of discrimination, and one of the hopes with these new platform economy services like Uber and Lyft is that they help us to get us past that."

He said researchers can't say for sure whether these services are better or worse than traditional taxis when it comes to discrimination. But it is something companies should look out for and can take steps to address, such as imposing higher penalties on drivers who cancel rides.

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.