Does Ridesharing Help Minority And Low-Income Consumers?


It’s a common story in urban areas: Cabs do not properly serve low-income and minority areas, leaving residents to the uncertainties of public transit  assuming there is some  or to their own devices. But can Lyft, Uber and other ridesharing services remedy that?

A new study suggests that, contrary to much opinion and even recent experience, the ever expanding ridesharing industry is doing a good job of serving those communities. That’s even as earlier studies have shown that Uber and Lyft tend to focus on higher-income areas. This newest study, a dissertation from the UCLA Institute for Transportation Studies, did, indeed, find that many ridesharing customers hail from “wealthier neighborhoods,” according to a summary.

The new study, though, which focused on L.A. County, found that neighborhoods with the lowest rate of vehicle ownership — those areas have the highest concentrations of minority populations — tend to have the most ride-sharing pick-ups and drop-offs. The findings were based on an analysis of 6.3 million Lyft rides that took place in fall 2016.

“Virtually no neighborhood in the country’s most densely populated urban area has been left unpenetrated by Lyft,” according to the report. “The company’s drivers serve 99.8 percent of the population of L.A. County. That in itself suggests that communities aren’t being systematically excluded.”

That’s hardly meant to suggest that low-income and minority consumers face no hassles when it comes to ordering Lyft, Uber or other ridesharing services.

Via, another ridesharing service, earlier this year faced accusations that it discriminated against such consumers by refusing to service certain neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. The company reportedly had been violating local non-discrimination laws by “by excluding two of the District’s predominantly black neighborhoods from its coverage area.” The company denied those charges, saying its plan was to service the densest areas of the city with its rides, in part as a response to ongoing maintenance problems with the local subway, with service expansions coming later.

Those accusations against Via come on top of reports that local restaurants often decline to deliver food to those areas, and that individual drivers for ridesharing services are reluctant to accept jobs that take them to those neighborhoods. That would go against a local law enacted in 2014 that requires companies using “digital dispatch technology” to provide service throughout the entire city.

The new UCLA study underscored the appeal of ridesharing to consumers who own no cars or trucks. The study said that, for every 10 percent increase in the number of households without vehicles, there is a 7 percent increase in the number of Lyft trips made by individual consumers. Most households that own no vehicles — 80 percent of them, according to the summary of the report — are in that situation because of financial limitations, not personal choice. And “majority-black neighborhoods have the highest share of zero-car households in Los Angeles, compared to any other racial group,” the summary said, adding that most of those areas did not enjoy full service from cab companies, and that most of those Lyft rides were shared, carpool-type trips.

Lyft, Uber and other ridesharing services may serve, in the longer term, to reduce public transit options in cities, services upon which low-income and minority communities often rely. Most ridesharing consumers are urbanites, according to one such look at the topic, and the relatively low prices of those rides, along with the relative reliability when compared to some mass transit systems, can lure consumers away from subways, elevated trains and buses.

“Ridership on public mass transit is down in nearly every major U.S. city,” the The American Prospect recently reported, with some of that downward trend blamed on the rise of ridesharing services. “Ridership declined significantly on San Francisco’s new BART train line to the airport as Uber and Lyft saw their ridership to the airport rise almost six-fold.”

Lyft seems to have brought a more reliable form of transportation to some low-income and minority areas in one of the country’s largest metro areas. But the overall impact those companies will have on how poor and minority consumers get around — and pay for their transit — remains to be seen.