TNC revolution may improve access for low-income communities

By Michael Brenneis

New research by Anne Brown finds that transportation network companies (TNCs) are invading auto-access deserts, serving disadvantaged lower-income populations, and offering an alternative to the historically discriminatory taxi industry. By studying data provided by Lyft for 6.3 million trips over a three month period in 2016, the author found that, by some measures, Lyft reached 99.8 percent of the population of Los Angeles County, narrowing the mobility gap for underserved populations.

On average, residents of low-income areas made more TNC trips per person than did other income groups. Since car ownership is low to non-existent in these areas, it is fair to say that residents are using TNCs as a primary means of car travel rather than as a supplement to the use of a personal car. Residents of low-income, more ethnically-, or racially-homogeneous areas also made more use of ride-sharing, a lower-cost TNC option. As diversity increases, the use of this option decreases.

The author explores several factors, not limited to racism, which may contribute to the observed discrimination against African-Americans by taxi drivers. Taxis may cluster in areas where the probability of finding customers is higher; airports and business districts, for example. They may not wish to deliver riders to the remote reaches of a region where the likelihood of a return rider is lower. Driver’s concerns for their own safety may lead them to reject customers based on visible characteristics such as location, affluence, or skin color, rather than on the basis of criminality, which is not visible.

Reduced discrimination by TNCs may be a result of offering drivers financial incentives to serve areas with high rider demand, or disincentives for canceling multiple trips. An audit of 1,700 TNC and taxi trips by the study author showed that 99.7 percent of riders using a TNC reached their destination, even if one driver cancelled the trip. Bias could have delayed the trip, but did not prevent it. Conversely, African-American taxi customers were 73 percent more likely than white taxi customers to have a trip cancelled, and 25 percent never reached their destination due to cancellations. For African-Americans who were picked up by taxis, the wait on average was 52 percent longer than for other groups. In general 10 percent of taxis did not arrive within one hour of being requested.

While there are still concerns about TNCs—such as increased VMT, the potential for increased congestion, and labor issues—this study showing reduced racial bias and increased service to the historically underserved indicates that the proliferation of TNCs represents a marked improvement over traditional taxi services in these areas.