If you had to guess the single strongest factor in determining who escapes poverty, what do you think it would be? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is transportation.
We may not think about it every day, but access to buses, trains and metros is a crucial link to opportunity and economic mobility. In fact, a recent Harvard study found the single strongest factor in determining economic mobility was commuting time. A lack of transportation options can keep a struggling community treading water. It is bad enough when a neighborhood lacks access to fresh produce; it is even worse when the closest grocery is only accessible by a bus that only shows up occasionally, or not at all.
If there is a personal equivalent to this public policy problem, it would have to be the struggle of catching a cab as a person of color, especially as a Black man. Nearly every person of color I know has a first- or second-hand story about a time that a taxi refused to pick them up or even drive to their neighborhood. Even President Obama has recalled experiencing discrimination when he was a young man.
A new research study provides some statistical meat to those anecdotal stories, and hints that the solution to this age old problem may lie in new technology. A study, conducted by Brilliant Corners and sponsored by Uber, surveyed more than 800 Black and white residents of Chicago. It found the following:
* The number of respondents who report personally experiencing being ignored by taxi drivers when hailing taxis on the street is significantly higher for black respondents than for whites (Blacks 48 percent to whites 23 percent).
* 55 percent of Blacks who have called for a cab at some point have experienced a refusal by the service to send a cab to their community.
* A solid majority of Blacks and nearly half of whites agree that taxis drivers deliberately discriminate against Black passengers.
Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, one of the most basic activities in daily life is still tarred by racism and discrimination. This new data proves the concerns that many people of color hold about finding a ride when it matters most: when the destination is a job interview, a doctor’s visit, or just a lunch with an old friend. The vexing experience of trying to hail a taxi is a powerful incentive for many people of color to seek alternative methods of transportation.
The most exciting alternative is ridesharing. Ridesharing companies, like Uber and Lyft, manage to be both more efficient than traditional taxi services and also more color-blind. When a driver selects a customer for pickup, he or she is completely blind to what that customer looks like, or where that customer is going. Using an app, anyone can get a reliable ride, whenever and wherever they are.
The added bonus of ridesharing services is that they serve as a form of economic empowerment themselves. As these services ramp up across the country, they are providing tens of thousands of flexible and easily accessible jobs. Three out of four Uber drivers use the service as a steady source of income, and eight percent of drivers were formerly unemployed. Uber has partnered with the NAACP in Boston and Maryland to recruit drivers from heavily diverse neighborhoods where jobs are often sorely needed.
In fact, these new services create a virtuous cycle of employment and economic empowerment. Ridesharing companies serve new people and communities that traditional taxis have for years passed over. When these drivers come from the communities they serve, it essentially creates a new market for transportation services. Everybody wins, from the passengers to the drivers to the local economy.
We often think about how technology and smartphones make our lives more convenient and easier; it’s important to remember that technology has the power to protect our dignity and make our society fairer as well.
Ben Jealous is former President and CEO of the NAACP and a partner at Kapor Capital, an early investor in Uber.