By David Z. Morris
June 30, 2018

A new study of ride-hailing services in Los Angeles suggests that apps like Uber and Lyft may be dramatically increasing transportation access for minority groups and in lower-income neighborhoods. The impact of this improvement is potentially outsized because those populations have been so poorly served by traditional taxis, and are less likely to own private vehicles. Ride-hailing services, then, may be dramatically increasing their overall mobility, particularly in car-centric cities such as Los Angeles.

The new research, conducted by UCLA Ph.D. candidate Anne E. Brown and described by CityLab, used data from Lyft to find that the company’s drivers served 99.8% of Los Angeles, and that users living in low-income areas made more trips per capita than those in middle- and high-income areas. The study also found that lower car ownership, which is correlated with lower income and minority status, also correlated to increased Lyft use.

That suggests that what is a situational convenience for higher-income riders is a lifeline to those without cars. Time and again, research has shown that public transport in American cities fails to give poorer residents access to jobs, both disadvantaging those individuals, and hampering city economies. While ride-hailing services are generally more expensive for riders than public transit, they’re more convenient and reliable than most bus services, and certainly better than nothing at all.

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The discrimination faced by poor and minority communities in the pre-Uber era had at least three elements. Studies and surveys across several major cities have consistently shown that, when hailed on the street, conventional taxis are less likely to stop for black passengers in particular. Taxis have also long been harder to get in neighborhoods populated by poorer residents, including those in New York City’s outer boroughs.

The new study offers a counterpoint to previous findings, which showed that at least some discrimination persisted when cars were hailed via an app. A 2016 study, for instance, found that African-American passengers could face wait times as much as 35% longer than white passengers, and much more frequent cancellations.

But Brown’s study puts that finding in a broader perspective. In addition to studying Lyft data, Brown’s team also conducted a field study of Lyft, Uber, and taxi rides. They confirmed previous findings about taxi discrimination against black riders, who in this study waited as much as 15 minutes longer than white riders. On Uber and Lyft, while disparities between white and black riders persisted, extra wait time for black passengers was no more than 2 minutes. The team found no substantial difference in wait times between white, Asian, and Hispanic riders using ride-hailing apps.

Though Brown’s findings are limited to Los Angeles, they are likely to influence ongoing fights over regulation between ride-hailing companies and cities. Those debates are largely driven by uncertainty about the complex impact of lightly regulated hailing services on safety, traffic, and established industries, more than by considerations of broadened mobility access.

In New York, a wave of taxi driver suicides has highlighted ride-hailing’s devastating impact on that industry nationwide, but the new data suggests that the taxi industry itself has inflicted harm that Uber and Lyft could help mitigate. London may also take notice – the city provisionally renewed Uber’s operating license this week, but will review it in just over a year. As in Los Angeles, many of London’s poorest residents are increasingly concentrated in outlying areas, which may be better served by ride-hailing services than traditional cabs.

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