Researchers from George Washington University in Washington D.C. assessed more than 100 million Uber and Lyft trips between November 2018 and December 2019 in Chicago. The goal of the study was to see whether there was a disparity in what passengers were charged based on location.
Using transportation and census data, the team concluded that ride-hailing companies charge a higher price per mile for trips when the pick-up point or destination had a high percentage of non-white residents, low-income residents, or low-education residents.
While the team acknowledges there are other factors that impact rideshare fares, it brings to light the possibility of social bias: “While demand and speed have the highest correlation with ride-hailing fares, analysis shows that users of ride-hailing applications in the city of Chicago may be experiencing social bias with regard to fare prices when they are picked up or dropped off in neighborhoods with a low percentage of individuals over 40 or a low percentage of individuals with a high school diploma or less.”
Rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft claim to use machine learning to forecast which areas will have the highest demand at a given time. That forecast is based on prior demand. Because of that, Lyft believes the George Washington University study is deeply flawed:
“The researcher acknowledges that the study was not based on actual demographic data of rideshare users. In fact, the study makes clear that speed and demand have the highest correlation with algorithmically generated fares and that individual demographic data is neither available to rideshare companies nor used in the algorithms that determine pricing. There are many factors that go into dynamic pricing – race is not one of them. We appreciate the researchers’ attempt to study unintentional bias, but this study misses the mark.”
This study, however, isn’t the first to examine the disparities in rideshare service for minority communities. A UCLA doctoral dissertation by Anne Brown of UCLA’s Institute for Transportation Studies concluded that African-Americans face longer wait times and more rideshare cancellations in Los Angeles than whites, Asians, and Hispanics.
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