Do Uber and Lyft Redline Low-Income Communities?

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jul 21, 2015

Some years ago I worked in an inner-city mall with a mostly African-American and Hispanic clientele, and it was instantly apparent that transportation was a major obstacle there. People had trouble getting to work, to shopping (an issue when the same neighborhoods are “food deserts”) and to socialize. The bus stopped at the mall, which was lucky, but otherwise folks did a lot of traveling around in the city’s decrepit (and expensive!) taxi fleet.

Rosa Parks' bus in the Henry Ford Museum. Tansportation discrimination: still alive, but now dispatched with a smartphone? (Jim Motavalli photo)You better believe that transportation affects employment. A Brookings study found that, nationally, a mere quarter of low- and moderate-skilled jobs are reachable by public transit within 90 minutes.

The civil rights movement began with transportation apartheid, as you may recall. I was reminded of this recently when, at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, I encountered the very bus in which Rosa Parks had been relegated to the rear. I sat in her seat, which was otherwise unremarkable.

Which leads us to Uber, Lyft and their like. Are they a boon to transportation-challenged communities, or do they racially profile and perpetuate the problem? The charges of discrimination have been getting louder lately: Slate reports that "transit is often not available to those who need it most, and new public transportation projects often serve those who own cars, at the expense of those who don't." The shared-ride leaders are on an offensive to convince us they’re the good guys.

Uber says it offers an affordable, on-time alternative to taxis, but do the cars go everywhere? (Adam Fagen/Flickr)Uber took a look at Los Angeles, a city that does have a subway system, albeit a limited one, and concluded in a study posted today that its UberX rides are available in 21 low-income neighborhoods at “less than half the price of taxis and arrive in less than half the time.”

The study was paid for by Uber, which of course could have buried it had the results been unfavorable. Mark Kleiman is co-author of the study and chairman of the policy analysis firm Back of the Envelope Calculations (BOTEC), which did the work. “At least in Los Angeles, ride services are a better option than conventional taxis,” he said.

The press release doesn’t discuss whether Uber is actually used in the neighborhoods under study, but Kleiman admitted that some data was collected on this and the utilization is “not very high.” Why? “I expect that people don’t know the services are available,” he said. Kleiman said that his researchers didn’t see any evidence of redlining in the 21 neighborhoods under study, but he also admitted there were some other, possibly dangerous, areas that were no-go zones in the study. “There may have been redlining there, we don’t know,” he said.

Kleiman may be right that Uber and Lyft aren’t well known, yet at least, in the communities studied. The problem is not low minority access to smartphones, by the way, since a Pew study finds no statistical difference between African-American and white smartphone ownership.

Smartphone Ownership, White vs. African AmericanCertainly, redlining has been alleged, and in Los Angeles, too. A Daily Kos report called "Ridesharing and Redlining: Uber, Lyft, Race and Class" concludes, “I work in Watts, and I’ve never seen a pink mustache [Lyft] anywhere south of the 10 Freeway and east of Crenshaw, but that might be just me.” The author talked to one Uber driver, who says, “No f….ing way am I going to pick people up in a crime-ridden area. I don’t have a death wish or a desire to get mugged….I don’t pick up people from untrusted areas.”

That’s anecdotal, of course, and it’s just one bigoted driver. But the taxicab industry—admittedly not a neutral party—filed suit in Chicago last year alleging that “Uber’s rides are heavily concentrated downtown and in affluent wards of the City, while neglecting poorer and minority wards.”

Last year, Think Progress said that Uber’s delivery service in northwest and southeast Washington, DC was very selective in choosing whiter, more affluent neighborhoods.

Uber denies this, and is on a counter-offensive in New York, where mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed a cap on Uber's operations for congestion reasons. Uber is coming out with guns blazing, and according to is running ads "with the message that the temporary cap would hurt people who aren't white, riders and drivers alike." WNYC also reports that "Uber is a giant corporation valued at $50 billion and without a single African-American on its leadership team."

Lyft also counters discrimination charges vigorously. “On the contrary, Lyft provides access to affordable, safe, reliable transportation to areas that have been historically underserved by traditional transportation options,” spokeswoman Paige Thelen told me. “In fact, more than 60 percent of rides in Chicago start or end in a neighborhood that is defined by the city as underserved by transit. Many drivers live in these underserved neighborhoods and provide rides within miles of their own homes to meet new neighbors and help the community while earning some extra money.”

Lyft claims it's reaching underserved neighborhoods. (Lyft graphic)And regular taxi drivers are hardly choir boys (and gals) in this regard. In additional research—also sponsored by Uber!—48 percent of black respondents said they’d been ignored by taxi drivers, and only 23 percent of whites said the same thing. “A solid majority of blacks and nearly half of whites agree that taxi drivers deliberately discriminate against black passengers,” the study said. A 2013 undercover investigation in Washington, DC found that black passengers wait “up to three times longer than their white counterparts” for a taxi ride.

Uber points to New York City, where 35 percent of all pickups are outside Manhattan, as compared to just six percent for the regular taxi fleet.

Blacks say they encounter taxi discrimination. (Brilliant Corners graphic)The truth is there’s a lot of transportation discrimination out there, and I’d be surprised if Uber and Lyft were totally free from it. But the bottom line is these services are increasing transportation options for some very underserved communities. Maybe it’s time for a PR offensive to let people know they’re within hailing distance.

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