Image: Associated Press

Why Doesn’t Uber Let Women Passengers Choose Women Drivers?

The company wouldn’t give me a straight answer for what seems like an obvious solution to recent safety concerns.

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Apr 6 2015, 1:00pm

Image: Associated Press

Rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft have many safety issues that are well known. There are multiple accounts of sexual and violent assault of rideshare passengers by drivers, and countless stories of creepy drivers who hit on passengers or make them feel uncomfortable, even without a physical attack.

Both companies have taken these issues seriously and tried to address them; Uber recently released new safety guidelines that include more stringent background checks and appointed a security officers. But it seems like there's one obvious partial solution staring them in the face: let women passengers select women drivers.

Most rideshare apps already allow the drivers to choose which fares to accept, giving them the control to avoid passengers they're not comfortable with. They also have the ability to set their own hours, avoiding late night fares if that's not their jam. But passengers don't always have a choice about when they need a ride. Why not at least let them indicate which kind of drivers they'd prefer?

It's true, the idea has a few hurdles to clear: How would a user's gender be verified? How long would you have to wait for a car driven by a woman versus a car driven by a man? What if creepy guys use it to always request a woman driver so they can hit on her the whole drive home? But even with these problems, it still seems like an improvement on the current options. And it's a fairly simple step towards addressing the rideshare economy's safety woes.

Lots of other services offer this option to clients, like massage therapists or doctors.

While making a "request a female driver" option won't eliminate all of the problems, it could make things a bit safer. At the very least, it may make passengers feel more comfortable, which is as good for the company as it is for the customers.

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris is a professor of urban planning at UCLA who has studied women-only transit systems around the world—like Japan's women-only subway cars. Though her research has shown women-only public transit doesn't seem wanted or needed in the United States, she was surprised to hear private companies wouldn't jump at the chance to offer as many options as possible.

"Having the option to choose is always a good thing for any private service," Loukaitou-Sideris told me. "If you have different options, you can choose something that fits you better. If one option is to request a female driver, I don't see why that would be bad. In fact I think that a number of women would probably opt for that."

At least one rideshare service has shown this to be the case. Sidecar, a rideshare app currently available in 10 cities across the country (mostly on the West Coast), recently introduced a "marketplace" business model: any rider can choose from a list of available drivers. It means not only can women choose women drivers, but any rider can choose a driver for whatever reason: maybe they're younger, and more likely to want to listen to the same kind of music as you.

"We moved to a marketplace model because we believe that travel isn't a 'one size fits all' proposition and we wanted to give riders more options," Margaret Ryan, a spokesperson for Sidecar, told me. "If you have surfboard or a bike, you can choose a larger vehicle. Or you might be willing to pay more for a Tesla, so you'll choose that."

Ryan said you can also choose based on gender, if you like, and since launching their new model in February, many women Sidecar drivers (it reports 40 percent of its drivers are women) have reported an increase in the number of ride requests from women passengers.

So there you go: a way to allow women passengers to choose women drivers without isolating them or making them the only ones to benefit.

There would be drawbacks, like a potential longer wait time or not being able to find a woman driver on the road at all. Uber reports that only 14 percent of its US drivers are women, but it recently announced an initiative to hire 1 million women, so theoretically that number should start growing soon. Meanwhile, Lyft has said one third of its drivers are women.

But neither of the two most popular rideshare apps actually make this an option for users.

Paige Thelen, a spokesperson for Lyft, told me the company's women drivers have opposed the idea.

"We have heard feedback from some female drivers that they enjoy accepting requests from all passengers and would not be comfortable with this feature in the app," Thelen told me over email. She said they have no plans of adding this feature right now, but said Lyft's focus on safety has been enough to lure women already, noting 30 percent of Lyft's drivers and 60 percent of its passengers are women.

When asked why Uber doesn't currently offer the option for passengers to request women drivers, a spokesperson said the company has no plans to make that an option at the moment. That doesn't answer "why not?," so I asked again. And once more. The closest thing I got to a response was the statement that Uber believes it has "built the safest transportation option in more than 290 cities around the world," and "will never stop innovating on our safety features, just as we innovate in various other aspects of our business."

It seems like a fairly simple request, and as Sidecar has shown, it can work. Lots of other services offer this option to clients, too, like massage therapists or doctors. Since the heavyweights of ridesharing apps seem uninterested in offering what would be a simple solution for passengers worried about safety, others have stepped into the role. Taking a step further than Sidecar, SheTaxis is a women-only app that launched last fall. Passengers must have a woman in their party in order to request a ride and all of the drivers are women.

It's still too early to tell how popular the service has gotten (it's only available in New York City, Westchester County, and Long Island) and it already received cries of sexism, so it's hard to say whether the new competition will spur Uber et al to change their tunes. But if enough women customers decide its worthwhile to switch services to feel safer, it might be just the impetus other rideshare companies need to start offering a simple option that many passengers might prefer.