Over the past few years the taxi industry has watched formidable competition take form—and then take customers. While taxicabs struggle to remain relevant in the marketplace, it’s become clear that their competition has something they do not: female drivers. While female drivers are a rarity in the taxi industry, it’s not uncommon to find them driving for Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft—aka rideshare companies. Does this indicate a safety disparity between taxis and TNCs? Or perhaps it merely reflects a disparity in perception of safety?
Risks for Taxi Drivers
You don’t need a wealth of experience as a customer of traditional taxis to notice the lack of female drivers in this industry. Historically, taxi driving has been a male-dominated occupation characterized by high levels of job-related fatalities. It would seem obvious that motor vehicle accidents account for the majority of occupation-related deaths in the taxi industry—except this isn’t the case. From the year 2003 to 2012 homicides were responsible for between 56% and 80% of job-related deaths in the taxicab industry. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics taxi drivers suffer the highest homicide rate of any occupation at 17.9 per 100,00 employees. To put this statistic in perspective, police officers endure the second highest rate of homicide at 4.4 per 100,000. Although taxi drivers account for only 0.2% of U.S. employees, they fall victim to approximately 7% of job-related homicides.
Though this may at first seem difficult to believe, consider what the job of a taxi driver really entails. They are often unarmed, deal in cash and pick up strangers at all hours of the day and then drive them to locations with which they are often unfamiliar. The director of the International Taxi Driver’s Safety Council, James Szekely, describes the job as essentially “picking up hitchhikers.” Given the incomparable level of risk associated with this occupation and the fact that we live in a society where women are targeted as victims of crime at a disproportionately high rate compared to men, it is no surprise that women have avoided jobs in the traditional taxi industry.
Risks for TNC Drivers
Because TNCs are a recent phenomenon and less regulated than the taxi industry, it is difficult to gather quantitative data on the rates of crime that their drivers experience. News stories of TNC drivers being robbed or assaulted are not uncommon, though it does seem clear that certain aspects of the app-based services of TNCs have afforded their drivers a degree of protection that taxi drivers do not enjoy.
First, TNC drivers are paid electronically. This keeps cash out of the car and thereby decreases the incentive for robbery. Criminologist Marcus Felson refers to cash as “the mother’s milk of crime” to illustrate the fact that cash is often the driving force behind criminal acts. However, TNC drivers are not without possessions and there have been many cases of drivers being assaulted and robbed of their wallets and iPhones. Of course, given that the driver can just immediately cancel credit cards, this does not provide the same incentive for crime as does cash.
Another characteristic of TNCs that acts as a safety measure for the drivers is the known identity of the passenger. While the passenger is still technically a stranger, (s)he does not have the anonymity of a passenger in a traditional taxi. The passenger’s name and credit card information are both downloaded into the app and the passenger knows this. Therefore, a level of criminal cunning that is not needed to rob taxi drivers is necessary to rob TNC drivers and escape.
Anna S, a former Lyft driver in both Seattle and San Francisco who wished to remain anonymous, says that her feeling of safety “was reliant on knowing what to expect. A Lyft driver sees the name, photo, and location of any passenger they pick up, and usually I know where I’m dropping them off within seconds of their entry into my car.” Anna adds that this isn’t the case with taxis.
Although passengers perpetrate the majority of taxi-related crimes, it is also common for the passenger to be the victim, both in traditional taxis and TNC vehicles. Anna explains that from her experience as a driver, she has learned that many women have concerns about their safety as passengers. Megan Carpentier, a columnist for The Guardian, recalls an incident where a male Uber driver made a vulgar comment about her body before requesting her phone number.
Anna says that female passengers have told her that they were uncomfortable getting rides from male Lyft drivers and would keep requesting and canceling rides until the driver was female. In regards to the possibility of a mechanism in the app where the passenger can request the gender of the driver Anna says “ you can see why the ability to request a certain gender would be…abused.” Although female passengers are the most common targets, male passengers are also at risk. On July 31 of last year a male passenger was choked and sexually assaulted by his Chicago UberX driver, Adnan Nafasat.
As competition has elevated tension between TNCs and the traditional taxi industry, the latter argues that the former unfairly avoids costly regulations. The taxi industry estimates that 35-40% of its operating costs come from compliance with safety regulations, many of which, it argues, TNCs skirt in order to afford competitive prices. One specific aspect of the TNC driver screening process that the taxi industry is particularly critical of is the absence of fingerprint scans.
While it’s true that TNCs do not conduct fingerprint scans for applicants, in many regards, these companies have more comprehensive background requirements of their applicants than do traditional taxi companies. An Uber applicant is disqualified from consideration if their record from the last seven years reveals a hit-and-run, fatal accident, reckless driving, violent crime, sexual offense, gun-related violations, resisting or evading arrest, driving without insurance, or DUI. On the other hand, regulations for San Diego taxis require that no applicant can have served prison time in the last five years for a violent crime or theft. While this is only one city, applicant requirements are similarly limited for taxi companies in many other metropolitan areas of the country.
Disparity Between Uber and Lyft
While TNCs in general employ more women than traditional taxi companies, Lyft has a significantly higher percentage of female drivers than other TNCs. According to SherpaShare statistics, Lyft employs almost double the proportion of female drivers that Uber does. One of the co-founders of SherpaShare, Ryder Pearce, says that this can be explained by the fact that “Lyft has always focused more on diversity of drivers.” However, many critics of Uber claim that the company deservedly suffers from a low opinion from women. Anna says that in the Bay Area Uber drivers tend to be “aggressive-looking men with attitudes to match.” Indeed, the company has drawn much criticism for not taking appropriate measures to protect female passengers from sexual harassment and even assault.
However, in an effort to address their “women problem,” Uber has pledged to employ one million female drivers by 2020 in partnership with UN Women. One could view this pledge as nothing more than a shrewd act of business politics but in the competitive marketplace in which Uber exists positive public perception is essential to long-term success, and the most effective way to correct this problem of perception is through decisive action. Therefore, to continue its dominance of Lyft and other TNCs in the marketplace it is likely that Uber will make sincere adjustments to the way it protects women.