Cab Drivers, Uber, And The Costs Of Racism

Uber’s Home Page.

Can disruptive technology provide a fix for social issues?

Silicon Valley darling Uber may be on to something. The service–which provides town car, SUV, or luxury vehicle service with a few taps of a smartphone–is considered the killer app for inefficient taxi service. Sitting pretty on close to $50 million dollars in venture funding, Uber is rapidly expanding its operations.

Uber is not without controversy. It’s a premium service with a premium price tag. The New York Times, in reporting on Uber’s new lower-priced hybrid option shows the high cost of convenience:

In San Francisco, for example, the hybrid cars will cost $5 for the base fee, and then $3.25 a mile after that. By contrast, the town cars cost $8 for the base fee and then $4.95 a mile. Taxis in San Francisco cost $3.16 a mile including a tip of 15 percent.

In addition to the steep cost, Uber is currently embroiled in lawsuits around skirting consumer protections, ran afoul of taxi laws in a few states, and is having problems fitting their tech into areas with safety rules about handheld devices on the road. Combine that with shady “surge pricing” practices that increase the price of a car in real time with demand, and there is a huge problem. (Also, see Paul Carr’s discussion of the ethics of hypercapitalism and Uber here and here.)

However, most analysis of Uber’s costs and benefits leave out one huge piece of the appeal: the premium car service removes the racism factor when you need a ride.

In 1999, actor Danny Glover made headlines by filing a taxi discrimination claim in New York City, noting that cabs failed to stop for him due to the color of his skin. Good Morning America experimented with having a black man and a white man hail cabs again in 2009 and found that the racial profiling still continued. In 2010, Fernando Mateo, head of the New York State Federation of Cab Drivers, encouraged racial profiling in the name of safety. Though it has been over a decade since Danny Glover made the issue a national conversation, the landscape hasn’t changed much.

As a black woman, I am generally seen as less of a threat than my black male peers. But that doesn’t mean my business is encouraged or wanted.I stopped using DC cabs back in 2003, when they were using zoning practices that ensured every time I stepped into a cab I wouldn’t get out for less than $25.00, even if I was just going ten minutes down the street. As I learned DC better, I figured out all the routes serviced by buses and trains and committed to walking the rest. The addition of a bike share program to DC has almost completely eliminated my need for a cab rides. A few years later, I repeated the process in New York and Boston, having learned the hard way that I could not count on getting a cab if I needed one, no matter how I was dressed or where I was going.

I had dismissed Uber outright, until a friend convinced me to take a second look. My friend is young and white and, when I asked her why she chose to use the expensive black car service as opposed to any other DC cab, she informed me that her neighborhood isn’t well-liked by cab drivers. As it turns out, while my friend could normally get a cab to stop for her, she suffered the same issues with cabs that black urbanities usually face. Though it is technically illegal for drivers to ask where you are going before allowing you in the cab (New York has clear rules about this; DC has similar rules that are not on any governmental site), it is a common practice. So, my friend noted with a shrug, she’d rather pay the extra five bucks for a fuss-free experience than hail cab after cab, hoping to find a driver to take her to her next destination.

I downloaded the service and tried it out one hectic day when I was on a tight schedule and had to get out to a part of Virginia not serviced by Metro. The price made me gag, but the rest of the experience was flawless: I knew exactly when my car would arrive, I received a text when they reached my location, I gave them a location without quibbling, and rode there in peace. In spite of wallet, I found myself reaching for the service more and more, even though my average ride was close to $25. Feeling slightly embarrassed at continuing to pay those exorbitant fees, on my most recent trip I decided to go back to my old way of buses, subways, and taxicabs.

My night in NYC went fine, with my feet, the train, and friends making sure all went well on the transportation front. The following day, however, I started to run into the usual trouble. Running too late to catch the train from Manhattan to JFK, I tried hailing a cab in the crowded streets around Times Square. Even though dozens of cabs were on the streets (and hours away from the next shift change), four different cab drivers claimed they were off-duty, despite their lights declaring otherwise. Still more sped around me, not even bothering to pull to the side for the lone black girl on the corner but happily picking up the white couple a few feet away. I started trudging to the nearest hotel, hoping to fall on the mercy of the concierge, when the 11th cab I spotted heading up my way finally picked me up.

Seven hours later, in San Francisco, I went through the whole process again, taking the BART to CalTrain and the CalTrain to Palo Alto transit center–only to face a hostile cab line for the second time in a day. (That will teach me not to pre-book a SuperShuttle.) There is no bus service to my neighborhood. My options were the cab line or Uber. The only other recourse would be to walk or hop a shuttle to the Stanford campus, then transfer to the one line that travels up the main road toward my home and walk the remaining half-mile back to the crib. I gave in and faced the cab line. Three out of four drivers waved me on. After the one nice cabdriver dropped me off, I thought about the $14 trip, and wondered if all of those little indignities were worth the saved amount.

I shouldn’t have to pay for premium service to get a racism-free ride experience–yet that is often the choice that I am faced with. All my years of being carless taught me that this type of racism, like street harassment, is often part of the landscape when you rely on mass transit options to get around. And yet, there isn’t much of a choice here. Uber is simply not affordable for anything but the occasional trip.

And yet, I find myself wanting to continue to support Uber, despite their sky-high prices and shady practices. I couldn’t quite explain why, until I read Clinton Yates’s piece on The Root DC:

It’s a familiar story: If I’m not wearing a shirt and tie, I’ll rarely try to get a cab. And if I’ve got on my usual get-up of mohawk, T-shirt and Vans sneakers, people laugh openly if I stick out my hand and/or yell, “Taxi!” It’s like the expressions on their faces say: “Ha! You think you’re getting a cab looking like that? Negro–please.”

That’s why I’m dismayed by the proposed regulations that could potentially put Uber out of business. It would be a step backward for those of us who are willing to pay more money for a respectable transaction rather than take our chances on the street and be degraded in the process. […]

Standing two blocks from the White House last month, I waited half an hour to get a cab. Ten empty ones passed me by. I know there are legal kinks to be worked out, but it would be unfortunate if the city managed to get rid of a useful company with a guiding principle based on the color of the money in your pocket and not the color of your skin.

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  • elusis

    Doesn’t work in SF. Every time I’ve used it, I’ve been promised a cab that’s 10 minutes away, 5 minutes away, 3 minutes away… then 7 minutes away, 9 minutes away… then 3 minutes away… then 5 minutes away… etc. etc. ad nauseum until I say “fuck it” and drive. There’s no requirement for the driver “assigned” to your request to actually fulfill it, so if they want to stop in the meantime and pick up someone else? If they decide “driving to the Excelsior for a fare is too much of a hassle”? Well too bad for me, and I’ve missed (my plane, my event, whatever.) Luxor Cabs in SF is the worst about this but all of them do it.

  • Curtis Wilde

    Wow, free markets actually combat racism? I. AM. SHOCKED.

  • pauraque

    “Some immigrants seem less aware of the taboo of racism and discrimination in America than the native-born, and speak in a shockingly open manner about their views and practices.”

    My gut instinct was to agree with this statement because I have also had the experience of cab drivers not from this country openly telling me (I am white) that they didn’t like to pick up black people, or that they didn’t want to go to my destination by a certain route because it went through a black neighborhood.

    However, I’m not sure it’s fair to single them out. If I think about it, I’ve also had the experience of cab drivers who appear to be white and from this country telling me the same things. Some of the most racist statements I’ve ever heard have been inside cabs, perhaps because people feel safe to talk openly inside a car, since no one will ovehear. And of course they believe that as a white person, I will agree with them.

    So, while it’s quite possible that an immigrant may not immediately pick up on social taboos, I think if they’re saying racist things inside a cab they’re actually doing a pretty good job of assimilating to American norms. :

  • Whitney TenSixteen

    “I am generally seen as less of a threat than my black male peers.” I am almost certain that that’s a commonly held sentiment without much merit. black women are threats in their own right, which is why I, as a black woman in dc, have little to no chance getting a cab if there are white people anywhere in the vicinity. something that I’ve noticed since leaving new york for dc, is most of dc cab drivers are black and way less likely to want me in their cab. I rarely had trouble in nyc, even though I lived in a pretty rough area. although, I rarely even wanted to take cabs in new york because the transit was so much better.

  • city girl dc

    A good example of race, class, and gender intersecting and the cost of racism and sexism. As a black woman I don’t get discriminated with Uber and feel safer than hailing a cab since my ride is tracked but if I couldn’t afford Uber, oh well. I take Uber all the time and have never been sexually harassed or treated rudely like I have the many times I’ve taken cabs in DC over the past 10 yrs. Funny how some DC cabbies try to claim their picking and choosing is all about location when they pass over blacks at the end of the night in favor of whites going to VA. As if the DMV area is not segregated. What they’re doing by asking for location first (which is illegal) is akin to redlining. And it’s incredibly hard for me to believe that all DC cabs are still not required to have credit card machines. That’s a safety issue itself in having to carry cash or track down an ATM when I need a cab.

  • Baiskeli

    I use Uber. I’m black. Lets just say I’ve had my share of trying to wave cabs down and not have them stop, while they stop for someone white further down the street. It doesn’t matter how I am dressed. And I only use cabs a few times a year.

    Also, I have to say, around here, when cabs do stop, they are either rude/abrupt or drive like maniacs who make you afraid for your life. I used to drive to the airport and incur the ridiculous parking fees rather than deal with Boston cabbies.

    I shouldn’t have to pay for premium service to get a racism free ride experience

    Yes, this. Nowadays, I use Uber, and to a driver, they have been comfortable, courteous and just a great way of getting from point A to point B. Sure, it’s more expensive than regular cabs but I’ll pay the extra to avoid dealing with racist or rude cabbies.

    To be honest, this is the same logic behind why I say online shopping has been a boon for me. Why go to a store and get ignored/profiled when I can buy the same stuff online (for cheaper). The only stores I frequent are the ones that treat me with a modicum of respect.

    Also, Huadpe said

    Broadly, many businesses operate like this on the service/price spectrum. Business class gets you nicer treatment than coach, and chartering a private plane gets you nicer treatment than business class

    This is sometimes the case, but not always.

    My wife treated me to a long weekend at a nice somewhat expensive resort for my birthday. When we pulled up, no one would help us with our luggage, though they were helping everyone else who pulled up (I’m black, my wife is white, but we’ve seen this enough to realize it’s usually my presence that garners us this treatment) . We had a number of other experiences there that convinced us we’d never go back. In the large scale of things, it wasn’t blatant, but we definitely felt less than welcome. The resort was nice and beautiful, the service, not so.

    We’ve had similar dining experiences to they point they follow a set script. A friend of ours (invariably white) will rave about this nice restaurant that we just have to try. We make reservations. We show up, and from the get go (trying to seat us in a dark corner near the toilet or the kitchen), the service is shall we put it ‘less than stellar’. I understand restaurants have off nights, but you get to the point you start seeing a pattern.

    When you go to a restaurant and you get excellent treatment, then you file it in your mental list of ‘good restaurants that are black people friendly’. And to me, treating customers badly based on their race is both immoral and poor business sense. I used to live next to an Indian restaurant. The first time we went there, we got stellar service. Ever since then, we keep going back, and I’ve had a couple of my birthday bashes (20-30 people, checks over $1000 not counting the 20+ tip), taken my whole family there when they came to visit etc . We’ve moved, and we still go back, we know the owners and the funny thing about them is, we didn’t get treated differently, they just treat everyone with respect and courtesy, and as a result, they have been around forever and do a booming business.

    Sometimes spending money is still not a guarantee of equal treatment (and from a philosophical point of view, black people shouldn’t have to ‘buy’ respect that is given freely to whites). I think Bell Hooks relates an anectode about how she (or her black friend) got mistreated flying business class. Someone claimed she was seating in their seat (she wasn’t, they were mistaken and had a different ticket, but the way the staff treated her with suspicion demanding she produce her ticket before they even asked the person claiming her seat to produce theirs, and were totally unapologetic about how they handled the situation). The assumption was that the black person was automatically lying, and the white person automatically telling the truth. The matter could have been resolved by asking the white seat challenger for their ticket to verify their claim.

    I think it is the opening to her ‘Killing Rage’ book, about how you can try and achieve but money and status is but a temporary shield from racism that can be ripped away at any moment.

    I remember walking into a car rental place many years ago (Enterprise) and having the rep snatch my Amex out of my hands and demand ‘where did you get this?’. I was flabbergasted, I asked to speak to her supervisor and wish I had followed up on the incident, but it is things like this that sometimes jolt you. Or the time I was staying at a nice hotel and every time I came in from outside the front desk staff would stop me and ask me ‘May I help you?’ while white hotel guests just sashayed through with no problem.

    We were in San Fransisco, we’d be in the same store, and we would purchase things. My wife (fiancee at the time) would pay with her credit card, I would pay with mine, if the cashier didn’t realize we were together, I’d get asked for ID, she wouldn’t (even though her card has ‘ask for id’, and mine has my signature). And each time my wife would challenge the cashier and we would get some mumbling about ‘random’ checks. Well, I guess Probability hates black people.

  • Medusa

    How is “avoiding black passengers in order to maximize fares” NOT racist?

  • gsasso

    Just curious, what’s shady about demand-based pricing (higher demand during peak times)? Seems perfectly reasonable to me to charge more when more people are interested in the product.

    • racialicious

      It’s shady. We aren’t talking about a few dollars more here – the cost can be 2.5x a regular trip and as far as I know, Uber doesn’t allow you to estimate the cost of the trip before hand. So that link to the Gothamist shows a $219 cab ride to go 7 miles. Since it is all automated, you often don’t know the cost before the end of the trip – and it is immediately billed to your credit card.

      • huadpe

        It wasn’t clear from the Gothamist piece that the surcharge isn’t disclosed clearly pre-trip. If it’s not then that’s a major problem I’d have. I have no issue with charging high prices for an in-demand service, but you need to disclose them up front. If it’s been disclosed and you still want to pay an insane price, then that’s fine, but jacking it up after the fact is indeed very shady.

      • Eliza Harris

        Of course _in theory_ if what they are charging is way out of line with their costs then another company will pop up and provide a similar model at lower cost (e.g. Groupon v. LivingSocial; apparently livingsocial is much more vendor friendly and the customer has a similar experience). I did say in theory. If there are a lot of regulatory hoops or Uber sets up some news ones that will reduce the chances of a viable competitor.

      • ktillman

        Actually I believe they show an example trip before hand before you accept surge pricing. Of what the regular rate would be and what it is with Surge pricing would be of a trip of X miles. You always have the option of not taking Uber during surge pricing, you know. How is it shady when its something you opt in for? I have taken Surge pricing ONCE. Generally its only a matter of less than 15 minutes before the Surge pricing is off. Or you can always take alternate means.

        • racialicious

          Surge pricing seems opt in, I will give you that point. But I have never been offered an in-app trip estimate. Sometimes surprised at pricing when I reopen the app after similarly spaced trips. So, I am glad the surge warning appears before you confirm the pickup, but there should be more of a warning if you are moving into 3 digit territory. (In the way that say, Verizon notifies you when you approach your data limit.)

      • John McDonnell

        I think it’s not really fair to call this “shady.” They are very transparent about the surge pricing; I’ve never accidentally been hit by a multiplier. And I do want to mention usually when I see surge pricing, the car services are refusing to give me the time of day, so it’s basically the option of paying more vs. not getting a ride at all. I usually take the bus when that happens but if you really want a car and don’t care what it costs it’s still useful IMO. Also most of the money goes to the drivers who I’m sure need a break!

  • ktillman

    I think another component to this is the high cost of Uber acts as a filtering mechanism for the type of clientele they pick up. I am black, female and take Uber often–so much so that I have a favorite driver and some of the driver’s don’t even act to ask my destination. I have found the drivers to be very comfortable with me because of certain assumptions they’ve made about what I do and my ability to take Uber as much I do.

    • huadpe

      Also, Uber takes a credit or debit card in advance, which eliminates the risk of a rider refusing to pay at the end of the trip. Broadly, many businesses operate like this on the service/price spectrum. Business class gets you nicer treatment than coach, and chartering a private plane gets you nicer treatment than business class. Not that there’s anything wrong with charging more for service, but one of the unfortunate side effects is the possibility for racial (and other) discrimination at the low end, particularly when the supply at the low end is government limited so it has to be rationed somehow.

      • ktillman

        You are correct. In all honesty, its a discrimination tax.

  • druce

    wonder about the implications of drivers rating passengers… people could get longer wait times or be effectively blacklisted from Uber based on neighborhood or for no reason… but maybe that’s better than not getting a pickup in the first place

  • huadpe

    Very interesting read. Looking at the pieces you linked re: Uber’s business practices, I think you shouldn’t have any qualms about them, though the surge pricing is the hardest to justify. The reason they’re skirting taxi laws is that taxi laws are horrendously anti-consumer and are explicitly written to line the pockets of current medallion owners at the expense of the general taxi-using public. I have -no- ethical issue with someone doing their very best to skirt those laws, as those laws are cronyism at their worst. And the safety complaints thing was a complaint made by Uber’s competitors, so I don’t put much weight on it.

    Yeah, Uber charges more, but they’re a for-profit company and do in fact provide a premium service. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have insane livery/taxi laws, and there would be 5 real competitors to Uber in every city forcing Uber to drop prices by competition. As it is, Uber needs to go through an insane hassle to be able to sell rides to people who want them, and few other companies are willing to enter the field due to the insane legal cost.

    By the by, particularly in New York, the taxi medallion system allows cabs to be much more discriminatory than they otherwise would be. By fixing the number of NYC cabs for the past 80 years, it means a cabbie will always be able to pick up a fare quickly, and that they can ignore potential customers that they deem ‘undesirable’ (read: black or hispanic). If you allowed anyone to operate a cab who had a proper license and safety inspection, you’d see many more cabs, and much less discrimination. And it wouldn’t cost a million dollars plus to get a taxi medallion.

    Re: surge pricing. The justification I would give is that, given demand spikes and the inability to create more cars, Uber would need to either tell some people “no” or jack up the price until demand equals supply. While the latter is hard to defend morally for things that are life and death (i.e. shelter in the aftermath of a storm), I think that for a luxury car service to charge a sky-high rate if the market will bear it is I think acceptable. I have no problem with Tiffany’s quadrupling their prices if the entire Manhattan elite shows up at their doors at once, or if they all hit the Uber button on their phones at 12:45 AM on Jan 1.

    • racialicious

      I agree taxi laws are terrible, but I also wonder about safety. I’ve only had good interactions with Uber, but what would happen if something went wrong? I’m thinking about the Airbnb scandal here. If I am ever assaulted by an Uber cab driver, what would happen?

      • huadpe

        You’d have the full legal protections you’d have when ordering a car service currently. Uber is hiring a car service that already operates within the law for dispatched car services. There’s no reason to believe that a driver hired by Uber is more or less likely to be a criminal who would assault you than a driver hired by a medallion holder. If anything, car service drivers tend to have better customer service/quality personnel since they’re a premium service business, but of course anyone can commit a crime. There’s some disincentive for the driver losing his license, but there’s also the disincentive of handcuffs, and if the latter isn’t enough to stop an assault, I doubt the former is either.

        Also, since you pay Uber with a credit or debit card, if there’s a major payment dispute, you can issue a chargeback through your bank. Harder to do that when a cabbie is holding you hostage in the car demanding cash because he doesn’t want to use the credit card machine and have to report the income.

      • John McDonnell

        I’m always surprised by this objection. What would you do if you were assaulted by a cab driver? Your only option is basically to try to track down the driver later and give their information to the police. That’s really easy with Uber which includes the driver profiles on its website; it’s way harder in a city cab unless you actually write down their license number or something.

    • John McDonnell

      Note that they actually use surge pricing as a hook to convince more drivers to come out!

      I wish people would recognize that most of the surge money actually goes to the drivers! There’s nothing shady bout that imo.

  • Elton

    Who are these taxi drivers? I was under the impression that most taxi drivers were immigrants and people of color.

    • racialicious

      Depends. In DC, mostly immigrants. In NYC I get a mix of people. In Boston, I’ve had mostly white drivers, but I’ve only caught a cab there a couple times. And as we all know, you don’t have to be white to participate in/uphold a racist system.