Anne E. Brown completed her doctoral dissertation, a groundbreaking study of discrimination and travel patterns in ridehailing, at UCLA ITS in June. Before she starts as an assistant professor at the University of Oregon in the fall, she completed a brief but busy postdoctoral tenure putting her research into action. Dr. Brown spent the summer presenting her findings to influential local groups and in the media, culminating in a Sunday op-ed in the Los Angeles Times.
“I found that when it comes to timeliness, technology and — most troublingly — racial discrimination, taxis lag significantly behind their flashy new competitors,” Dr. Brown wrote, outlining her first-of-its-kind “equity audit” of Lyft, Uber, and taxis in Los Angeles. “Taxi service, while poor, was pretty much the same for white, Asian and Latino riders. It was only noticeably different — and noticeably worse — for black riders, providing robust evidence of discrimination.”
The equity audit found that black riders were 73 percent more likely to have a taxi driver cancel on them compared to white riders, a racial gap that shrank to just 4 percent for Lyft and Uber, among other findings detailed in Dr. Brown’s column. The stark evidence of discrimination was covered extensively in the press, including by USA Today, the Daily Mail, Wired, the Miami Herald, and Fortune. Curbed and CityLab also delved into the other, equally impactful portion of Dr. Brown’s research — the first-ever academic examination of Lyft’s trip-level travel data, which is not available to policymakers or the public.
The data paint a “promising portrait of access to Lyft in Los Angeles County,” wrote CityLab’s Laura Bliss. “Contrary to the belief that ridehailing primarily serves the affluent, it appears neighborhoods with low rates of car ownership — which tend to be populated by people of color — actually see more pick-ups and drop-offs than others.”
Dr. Brown herself expanded on her travel data findings for Transfers Magazine’s The Circulator blog. Lyft trips reached nearly every part of LA County, she wrote, and “there was no evidence that neighborhoods are systematically excluded from Lyft service based on the racial, ethnic, or economic characteristics of their residents. And a strong association between Lyft use and the level of household vehicle ownership in a neighborhood suggests that Lyft use is highest where its substitute — the household car — is scarcest.”
In presentations to the Los Angeles Taxicab Commission and the Leadership Forum for LA Metro, Dr. Brown emphasized the importance of occasional car access and the harms caused by poor service and discrimination against communities and individuals of color. The leaders of the Taxicab Commission and local agencies were receptive to her findings, but as Dr. Brown wrote in the LA Times, her dissertation should prompt public policy changes to enforce anti-discrimination laws and boost service: “Unless taxi companies are forced to change, it’s hard to see how rider equity will improve.”