The Mounting Fallout from Uber and Lyft’s Disruption of the Taxi Industry

Photo:  Flickr/Raido Kaldma
Photo: Flickr/Raido Kaldma

A number of high-profile abductions by rapists posing as Uber and Lyft drivers is once again highlighting the downside of the app-based disruption of the taxi industry — which goes far beyond all the congestion and rise in traffic fatalities.

As these companies grow, customers are experiencing exactly the kinds of problems that taxi regulations, at least theoretically, helped control. Here’s short list of problems plaguing the growing and still-largely-unregulated app-based taxi industry, and a bit about why we may be headed toward a more regulated taxi industry once again:

Sexual Assault, Abduction and Impersonation

The recent rapes, abductions, and even one murder, were committed by people posing as Uber and Lyft drivers. Not the companies’ drivers themselves.

But this kind of impersonation problem is worsened by some of Uber and Lyft’s policies. These companies, of course,  rely on privately owned cars that are not very strongly distinguished from everyone else’s cars. Anyone who has a sticker can pose as an Uber driver pretty effectively, provided the rider isn’t paying attention to the license plate and model info the app provides, especially.

Of course, regular people can pose as taxi drivers and abduct women. But to masquerade as a professional city cabbie would at least require a greater level of sophistication, access to a carefully regulated marked vehicle and identifying license, or some kind of fake.

The problem may be much more widespread. According to a CNN investigation, 120 reported rapes have been allegedly committed by Uber and Lyft drivers in the last four years. Rape is a notoriously underreported crime, as well.

Sexual Harassment

There’s also the issue of more mundane sexual harassment, highlighted in a recent viral thread, which is made harder to protect against because Uber and Lyft drivers are classified as independent contractors instead of employees.

Women especially, but also men and non-binary people as well, can be subject to sexual harassment everywhere, of course and often on public transit. But when their harasser is driving the car they are inside, and dropping them off at their house, it adds an extra element of power. In the case that went viral on Twitter this week, the driver making advances locked the woman in his car in front of her home and she eventually got out and fled. When she reported it to Lyft, the company reportedly offered her a $5 credit.

We asked both Uber and Lyft about how they handle complains about sexual harassment and assault. Both companies told us they operate a 24/7 call line where they handle these kinds of complaints. Uber lists the standards of behavior for both drivers and passengers on its website and app.

Uber investigates and responds to those complaints on a case by case basis, a spokesperson told Streetsblog. Unwanted touching or sexual advances, a spokesperson said, could lead to being banned from the app for either drivers or passengers. Uber would not disclose how many such complaints they receive annually or how many drivers or users were banned on those grounds.

That lack of data is troubling. In most cities, such attacks or allegations would be tracked. In New York City, for example, even if a complaint doesn’t mandate police involvement, it could still be forwarded to the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which has the authority to revoke licenses and impose fines — which it does frequently. This agency receives about 21,000 complaints or all types, including sexual harassment, annually, according to WLNY.

Industry pressure reined in the agency from undertaking a wider crackdown on sexual harassment a few years ago. But drivers’ behavior is still highly regulated.

What female passengers experience may be overshadowed by what happens to female drivers, two of whom told Streetsblog that they dealt with things like suggestive questioning, unwanted touching and aggressive behavior, like punching their seat. Being a professional driver is a hard job regardless, but it has to be especially fraught when many of your passengers are drunk.

Uber told us that if a driver reports that a passenger was sexually harassing her, the company could ban the rider, though it is unclear how often this happens. And if the complaint is serious enough to rise to a criminal investigation, the company says it cooperates — just as any company would be forced to cooperate if a police department demanded information about a crime. Uber drivers, who are independent contractors, ultimately have to fight their own cases.

Congestion

Uber and Lyft have been — rightly — blamed for increasing congestion in congested areas like Manhattan, central Seattle and San Francisco. According to the city of San Francisco, an astounding one in five miles driven within the city are Uber or Lyft.

Cities had a built-in way to address this problem by simply capping the number of taxi medallions or licenses they issued — until Uber and Lyft subverted those regulations. Now cities are generally resorting to fees to limit the number of Uber and Lyft vehicles. But it doesn’t seem like any city has yet imposed a fee large enough to have a serious impact. Boston is considering one of the steepest: a $5 surcharge for Uber and Lyft cars that pick up or drop off at the airport.

Traffic Safety

Hundreds more people would be alive today without the existence of Uber and Lyft, according to a recent study from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

Uber and Lyft say the increase is only due to the fact that their millions of drivers have increased the total number of miles driven by Americans — and more miles driven means more deaths. But some people say their policies are a problem. For example, they urge drivers to circle without passengers in order to keep wait times low.

We don’t have very good information right now about the safety record of Uber and Lyft drivers. Uber and Lyft probably have a lot of data about that, but have not been willing to share it. Anecdotally, however, there are many, many, many accounts of recklessness by Uber and Lyft drivers that has led to deaths — like the case of the Uber driver  who plowed into an Atlanta crossing guard, killing her. He claims he fell asleep.

New York City allows taxi passengers to report dangerous driving to the Taxi and Limousine Commission using an app. According to StreetsblogNYC, 78 percent of those complaints were aimed at Uber, Lyft or Via drivers, who are also regulated under the commission, even though those drivers only account for about 71 percent of the city’s taxi fleet.

The Canadian Broadcasting Company investigated Uber’s safety policies in a 2018 report. The news organization reported that drivers are subject to a brief background check, but Uber and Lyft not provide any driver safety training.

Accessibility

Taxi cabs don’t do a great job serving passengers who use wheelchairs by any means. But they are required to offer accessible service.

Uber and Lyft have ignored ADA requirements until a rash of recent lawsuits forced them to evolve. As a result, they both started offering wheelchair accessible vehicles — but only in certain markets. Lyft on its website actually refers people who use wheelchairs to traditional cab companies in cities like Tucson and Phoenix using hyperlinks. Uber offers the service in just five cities, according to the Washington Post.

Now we’re starting to see them come under regulations more typical of traditional cabs. The California Public Utilities Commission has instituted a five-cent surcharge on every Uber and Lyft trip which is used to fund an accessible ride-hailing program.

Labor

Taxi drivers who are considered employees are subject to regular wage and employment laws, so they qualify for minimum wage and other mandated benefits. But Uber and Lyft have mostly escaped many of these worker protections by classifying workers as independent contractors.

Some Uber and Lyft drivers report making as little as $3 an hour.

New York City recently imposed a rule requiring Uber and Lyft to pay drivers a minimum hourly wage. But Lyft is suing to block the legislation, while Uber has complied. This really only scratches the surface of the way the estimated 2-3 million drivers are affected. But driving for Uber and Lyft is one of the fastest-growing low-paying jobs in America.

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