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.

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

  1. Pretty impressive the growing number of people who prefer the statistically insignificant risk of using Uber/Lyft as opposed to the much higher risk of being assaulted etc etc by riding a bus, at a bus stop or walking home… and talk about under-reporting.

  2. What a load of drama. “I might be kidnapped, raped, or even killed”… really? Considering there is a clear record of who this person is, I woulds say the risk of that is extremely low. If the guy was a jerk, that sucks. But please, chill out. And spare me the crap line about “non binary people”… no one cares about your gender choice, stop making everyone bend over to recognize you.

  3. My beef with these guys is just that ANYONE could have started a very profitable bandit cab company anytime between about 1934 & 2014 in NYC, Boston, DC, SF, but they would have been completely crushed by municipal fines & their insurance company would be sending daily cease & desist letters.

    Since there’s so much capital sloshing around these days, these tech bros just assembled more lawyers & greased more palms to get themselves into these markets. Nothing about their idea is particularly original except it replaces the 15 second interaction with the human dispatcher with a 15 second interaction with a computer, they track all your movements, your driver usually has no useful local knowledge, the rating system winnows out really good drivers but have accents, & you can’t pay cash anymore.

  4. Look, these kinds of alarmist articles are pointless. People vote with their feet and their apps: use of Lyft and Uber continues to increase rapidly. (Mostly) women ccontinue to have to be vigilant about our safety, especially after drinking alcohol. Yes, I agree that these companies could and should do more to increase safety by instituting confirmation of true rider-driver matche ups, and the companies should be required to minimize, not encourage, roaming by empty cars. And yes, every city should slap a fee on rides, particularly solo and non-carpool rides. But these are all technical or political adjustments. Stop with the anti-rideshare rhetoric. It is anti-modern, lacks pragmatism, and is plain tiresome.

  5. The biggest problem for me with both of these services is the amount of congestion they add to the streets. That, and the drivers never seem to know where they are going. And they pick up people in insane places, like alongside Lakeshore Drive where no cab driver would pick someone up. I see something stupid like this every day, and no cab drivers are not as a whole, just as bad. (Plus, at least there, I can see the cab number from far away and report it).

    Congestion pricing should be standard. These services add so many cars to the roads. You wanna take Uber/Lyft, fine. But be prepared to pay more.

  6. Drivers have to confirm their rider in order to learn their destination and get directions. Passengers get a vehicle description including color and see a photo of the driver.

    I have no clue what urge drivers to circle without passengers in order to keep wait times low even means; makes no sense to me. Did a search and all that came up was this Streetsblog article. I know instances like when a sporting event is over that city traffic control will not let Uber/Lyft drivers park in a street lane. Airports are a unique place and (while not in Phoenix) maybe that is the advice at some airports, I wouldn’t know.

  7. Drivers utilize GPS directions provided (mostly) by Google.

    Except for those who take Uber/Lyft instead of transit which would be too expensive most people, that added congestion is greatly over-exaggerated. It’s estimated to be somewhere between 1 and 2 percent of miles driven.

  8. uber /lyft is not the biggest problem now, but underground market of illegal operators who advertise on google and facebook as airport taxi, airport shuttle, uber cash. etc is

  9. People who vote with their apps and piles of cash are doing so at the expense of others who don’t have that sort of clout.

  10. “Disruption” is a tired term. “Disruption of the Taxi Industry” is actually Uber/Lyft spin, but what they’ve really disrupted is public transit. You shouldn’t be lending credence to their corporate spin.

  11. Hi Kill, Every citizen can and should vote in elections. And most people can walk into stores and places they want to give their business. And nearly everybody owns a smart phone, or will soon, and so can shop online, order cabs or Ride hails, etc. Plain, ordinary people, not just the wealthy exercise market power and electoral power all the time. Don’t underestimate how much we all do every day to structure our environment. If people are using Lyft and Uber in increasing numbers, it is because such services are providing value to individuals of all sorts, not just some elites with piles of cash.

  12. Running a livery service out of your personal car is not “modern”, anymore than turning your home or a residential property into a hotel/guesthouse is. Should we have folks open restaurants in their homes and call them a shared meal service? This is a regression back to a 19th Century style, unregulated business paradigm. Just because an “app” is utilized to facilitate these business connections and transaction, does not make this a ‘modern’ concept, or ‘pragmatic’. It also should not exempt it as a commercial transaction, even though the Uber law that they wrote, lobbied and paid to have passed in many states, says it is. The law also makes it virtually impossible to ‘slap fees on rides’ or stop these ‘shared ride vehicles’ from cruising, except on a state level. There are very good reasons that we as a nation stopped the mixing of commercial enterprises and private vehicles or residential housing, and many of the reasons above, are why. Meanwhile the main reason the “use of Lyft and Uber continues to increase rapidly” is due to the fact that they not only exploit foolish drivers to offer their services for what amounts to a pittance of a net income in the end, but the TNCs are offering pricing on these service at a loss, which is known as predatory pricing and is actually ILLEGAL according to laws enacted on a federal level in the early 20th Century. Of course the reason given for the FTC not enforcing these laws now? They claim they are ‘archaic’… =/

  13. Carl, You make several good points, and your assertion of the ride hail companies operating at a loss (and many of their drivers not making much money) is substantiated by a recent New York Times article. I give you all of that.

    And yet these app driven services will continue to flourish even with much needed regulation. Why? Because at their best they connect users with otherwise under-used property (idle cars and , in the case of Air B&B, short term unoccupied rooms and apartments).

    I fully expect the ride hails will switch over a large portion of their cars to self-driving vehicles (perhaps still owned by individuals not using them at the time of service). We will then hear complaints that this sidelines yet more unskilled labor as unemployed. But we should no more stop this automation than replace mechanical harvesters with farmhands using scythes. None of us knows what the future economy and future life looks like. I assure you, however, that neither looks like what we have experienced thus far.

  14. I am a LYFT driver and I have had a great many young ladies chose Lyft because they felt unsafe on public transit being stared at by homeless transients or having them sit right next to them. Cities have allowed transit to be their mobile day shelter for homeless and mentally ill people. No wonder LYFT is so popular among the professional class.

  15. Sexual assault claim: no statistics so the small percentage that might occur get blown up by the media. Would love to see statistics of assault victims at bus stops waiting on busses or dropped off from busses.
    Impersonation: the app give a picture and lic plate of your driver to avoid this from happening. Don’t blame a concussion on the road if you ride a bike and don’t wear a helmet.
    Congestion: lanes taking up by empty bus and bike only lanes squeezing cars in smaller spaces.
    Charge use fees: my gas tax and tabs help pay for the roads transit drives on let transit absorb the cost of the bus only lanes. if people chose LYFT who are you to take that choice away from others?
    Safty: three minor traffic violations the driver gets DE-platformed. Busses run red lights and block intersections all the time and abruptly cut into traffic causing near misses all the time.
    Disabled: Lyft drivers don’t drive minivans with compression lifts so may not be best for wheel chair riders. I have helped the blind/Deaf and elderly with walkers no problem and even some wheel chairs that fit in my trunk.
    Labor: 4.5 years as a LYFT driver and independent contractor: I clear 22.00 per hour after expenses. Like any small business you have to be smart and know what your doing.
    Ms Schmidt you should seek to understand before trying to be understood and don’t let ideology get in the way of facts.

  16. Oh forgot to mention one more thing. I have to spend over a hundred dollars a year for a business license for two cities as added cost of doing business. Interesting to see how the city is managing that money. Also if there is a use tax don’t be surprised if the city just uses that tax as a excuse to feed there already bloated slush mystery fund.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG