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Uber and Lyft Are Going Public. Can They Keep the Public Safe?

Silicon Valley’s ridesharing behemoths both filed for IPOs, but continue to offer little clarity on how they plan to curb sexual harassment on their platforms. A deeper look reveals that the issue goes beyond transparency—the viability of the companies may depend on them doing the bare minimum.

John W. Tomac

This spring, Uber and Lyft are ushering in a new wave of IPOs from gig-economy companies that are reorganizing the physical world as well as the digital one. Over the next several weeks, The Ringer will be examining the impact these companies have on the way we travel, live, and define the concept of a job in the modern age.

On her first night in Boston for a summer internship in 2018, Allison Tielking took a Lyft from the airport to her new apartment. The ride lasted about 20 minutes, filled with the casual banter that Lyft has encouraged since the days its drivers greeted passengers with a fist bump. When she arrived at her destination and tried to get out of the car, her driver turned around in his seat, blocked the door handle, and took out his cellphone. He wanted her number. “I wasn’t going to give it to him at first, but he was looking at me and I didn’t know what to do so I just gave it to him,” Tielking says. “I just needed to figure out the fastest, easiest way to get myself out of his space.”

That wasn’t the only negative experience Tielking had using Lyft over the summer. She says a second driver made crude remarks to her as he drove her down a dirt road, far out of sight of any passersby. A third time, a driver asked her out on a date after saying he had recently broken up with his girlfriend. Each time, Tielking reported the incident to Lyft. Each time, she received an email informing her that she would not be paired with that driver again. “Your safety is our top priority,” a Lyft support representative assured her in one of the emails. The “required course of action” had been taken.

But this response left Tielking, now a junior at Stanford University, with lots of questions. How frequently were drivers being reported for making riders feel uncomfortable or unsafe? Was a driver explicitly violating a Lyft rule by asking a customer out on a date, or independently exercising poor judgment? And what, specifically, was Lyft doing to the drivers she had reported? “It’s very unclear, and that creates a lot of fear that it’s just going to keep happening again,” Tielking says. “It makes it feel like they’re kind of supporting the behavior when they don’t tell the passengers what’s going on.”

Lyft coordinates millions of rides per day in cities across the United States and increasingly partners with local agencies to mimic bus routes or transport people to transit stations. The rideshare service and its primary rival, Uber, are fast evolving into quasi-public infrastructure. But these companies’ guidelines on driver decorum are vague, and their drivers receive no formal sexual harassment training. The frequency of accidents or incidents of criminal activity among drivers is unknown, outside of the headlines that are generated when a ride-hailing customer is assaulted or sues over a previous attack. A CNN investigation from last April tallied 103 Uber drivers and 18 Lyft drivers who had been named in sexual assault or abuse accounts over a four-year span starting in 2015, documented via either police reports or civil lawsuits. But the true numbers likely far outstrip what CNN was able to find without the companies’ cooperation, and don’t include experiences like Tielking’s. “Most of the time, they have an interest in keeping these events quiet,” says Bryant Greening, a cofounder of LegalRideshare, a law firm that represents injured rideshare passengers and drivers. “Both Uber and Lyft are proactive in trying to discuss resolution of cases before things hit the press or the courts.”

Until last year, both Uber’s and Lyft’s terms of service barred riders from taking sexual assault claims to open court, a measure that corporations commonly use to shield their legal liability. Instead of being forced to reach a private settlement in an arbitration hearing, riders can now sue the companies and have their cases heard in the public sphere. Despite this change, riders are still left in the dark about how misbehaving or dangerous drivers are punished. This obfuscation is partly financially motivated, as taking steps to directly address such concerns would jeopardize the companies’ business models; it is also partly a byproduct of the longtime Silicon Valley ethos to obsessively prioritize efficiency—in this case, as many drivers serving as many riders as possible—above all else.

“The safety of the Lyft community is our top priority, and since the beginning, we have worked hard to design policies and features that protect our community,” Lyft spokesperson Alexandra LaManna said in an emailed statement. “This includes in-app photos of the driver and vehicle, real-time ride tracking, digital receipts, two-way rating systems, and professionally administered criminal background checks. We do not tolerate harassment or violence on our platform, and such behavior can and does result in a permanent ban from our service. We value feedback from both our passenger and driver community and are always exploring new, innovative ways to improve the experience for all users, and most importantly, to keep our community safe.” Uber declined to respond to questions about its training procedures, but outlined similar safety policies.

Though harassment and assault are issues of unknown scale on the ride-hailing platforms, investors have shown little interest in finding out more. Lyft rode its good-guy image to a blockbuster IPO that valued the company at $24 billion in March. Uber’s IPO this week could garner a valuation of $90 billion. While these stock offerings will unlock reams of financial details on Wall Street, they won’t provide clarity on how these platforms impact public health or safety. There’s an accountability gap when it comes to disclosures in the tech sector, where every data point of the customer experience is meticulously tracked but isn’t subject to scrutiny outside a given company’s headquarters. The information that actually affects customers remains a proprietary black box, just like the algorithms that Silicon Valley firms so dearly protect. Women like Tielking, who call for greater transparency and accountability, often receive just a coupon for their trouble.

Since there is little public data about how often people are sexually harassed or assaulted while using ridesharing platforms, Tielking decided to gather some on her own. In a column titled, “Why a $15 Lyft coupon won’t fix sexual harassment,” she wrote in Stanford’s student newspaper about her experiences and posted an open call for others to come forward with their stories. She was surprised by the volume of detailed responses that she received, about 40 in all, and summarized them during a presentation about how to improve the rider experience to Lyft executives in January. “I wasn’t really expecting too many people to respond,” Tielking says. “That made me feel like this was a very serious issue and it shows that it can get a lot scarier than just blocking a door handle.”

Women recounted a wide variety of harrowing experiences while using Uber and Lyft. One Lyft passenger said that a male driver started recording her with his cellphone camera without her consent. Another said a man tried to invite himself up to her apartment. Multiple respondents mentioned unwanted touching, drivers who asked for their phone numbers while keeping the car door locked, and even outright sexual propositions. “Being in someone else’s car kind of removes the element of choice for you,” says Amirah Al-Sagr, a freshman at Occidental College in Los Angeles who was pressured into giving her Uber driver her number during a trip in October. “This person is driving a moving vehicle and is in a sense responsible for your safety. It’s almost like an abuse of position.”

Emily Ebel, a PhD student at Stanford, says that on a ride home from the airport a Lyft driver told her she should marry him and have his children. When Ebel reported the behavior, Lyft refused to tell her whether it had punished the driver or to reveal its specific policies regarding harassment. She knew only that she wouldn’t be paired with him again. She deleted her account three days after the ride. “Lyft is not a dating app for the drivers, and a lot of them treat it that way,” Ebel says. “It’s extremely unprofessional and inappropriate, whether or not it’s illegal.”

Lyft’s terms of use bar people on its platform from threatening or harassing others. But the driver onboarding process makes hastily clicking through these agreements as easy as signing up for any other online service. And while Uber and Lyft both have community guidelines on their websites that go further in setting the standards for appropriate behavior—per Lyft: “Many people find it invasive to be asked, ‘Are you single?’”—these aren’t required viewing for drivers. Tielking was surprised to discover that the dog-walking app Wag!, which requires the completion of an 18-question quiz during the onboarding process, offers more training about appropriate behavior on the job than Uber or Lyft. “The people who are walking your dog are way more vetted than the people who are driving you alone at night,” she says.

Like many Silicon Valley firms, Lyft and Uber have business models predicated on breakneck growth. Uber once adopted the mantra “always be hustlin’” and long flouted city regulations; Lyft has followed suit, shedding distinguishing features like a driver mentorship program as it has scaled. And while both companies run background checks to prevent dangerous criminals from becoming drivers, the nuances of the power that a driver can abuse, either through words or actions, when a woman is locked in a car may have initially been lost on two companies with all male founders. Tielking has spent the past several months campaigning to get Lyft to make changes to its harassment reporting process and driver training program that she thinks would help protect women. When she first brought up her experiences with harassment during a student tour of Lyft headquarters in August, she felt her concerns were brushed aside until a female engineer said she would look into making changes to how harassment is reported in the Lyft app. “[The women] were the ones who really responded emotionally to it,” she says. “I didn’t really feel any empathy from the men in the room.” (One of Tielking’s proposed changes to improve reporting within the Lyft app was recently implemented.)

The issue of harassment is more than just a corporate blind spot. Doing more to rein in driver behavior would pose a colossal financial risk to the ride-hailing giants. Uber and Lyft have faced multiple lawsuits from drivers demanding that they be classified as employees rather than independent contractors. In California, the state Supreme Court recently ruled workers can be identified as independent contractors only if they are “free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work.” Now the state legislature is considering codifying the ruling, which could affect workers ranging from carpenters to strippers. Both Uber and Lyft are nervous about this shift dismantling their venture-funded empires. The legal skirmishes alone are already growing expensive—Uber just settled one lawsuit for $20 million—and in its IPO filing Uber admitted that a large-scale reclassification of drivers would “require us to fundamentally change our business model.”

By laying out strict behavioral rules or offering in-depth sexual harassment training, ride-hailing companies would bolster the argument that drivers are workers under their direct supervision. Their success is, at least in part, dependent on them doing the bare minimum when it comes to helping drivers distinguish between right and wrong. “Uber and Lyft’s entire business model hinges on the drivers not being employees,” says Greening. “They’re afraid of stepping over that line, and as a result, the community suffers.”

This hands-off approach is apparent even when the companies address major controversies within their industry. Last month Samantha Josephson, a University of South Carolina student, was killed after getting into a car she mistook for an Uber. A lawsuit against Uber recently filed in Los Angeles alleges that nine people were sexually assaulted under similar circumstances. In response to the South Carolina killing, Uber relaunched its old “Check Your Ride” PSA campaign, which reminds riders to double-check their driver’s name and vehicle model before getting into a car. Josephson’s parents have started a social media campaign called #WhatsMyName, encouraging riders to ask that question before getting into a rideshare vehicle.

But these solutions place the onus on riders to be vigilant, rather than creating a safer environment through a standardized driver protocol. Al-Sagr would like ridesharing drivers to be required to say a passenger’s name when one gets into a car. And South Carolina’s legislature looks likely to pass a law that would require Uber and Lyft vehicles to feature lighted signs, like traditional taxis. “This is just a first step,” Representative Seth Rose, the bill’s sponsor, told the Associated Press in April.

Clearing up the ambiguous relationship among the ridesharing companies, drivers, and customers would benefit the drivers as well. Drivers are themselves sometimes the targets of sexual harassment and subject to confusing termination policies. And just as riders are often given little information about what happens to drivers they report, drivers are often not informed of what rules they are accused of violating, and get an appeals process only on certain platforms in certain jurisdictions, according to a recent report by The Daily Beast. A transparent appeals process to deactivation is part of a “Drivers Bill of Rights” for which some Lyft and Uber drivers are advocating. “Ride-hail companies have largely stayed away from training drivers at all, and that hurts drivers and riders alike,” Moira Muntz, a spokesperson for the Independent Drivers Guild, said in an email. “It really sets drivers up for failure, which is particularly painful when a driver has gone into debt to enter this business and then is kicked off the app in their first few weeks because they were not taught the basics.”

If the employee reclassification sticks, the companies may find themselves forced to deal with sexual harassment more directly in some states. In the wake of ongoing #MeToo revelations, California just passed a law requiring companies to provide an hour of sexual harassment training to all their employees. The state has also carved out more specific harassment laws in the past. A 2016 act requires janitorial employers to provide their workers with regular sexual harassment training. A more recent law states that venture capitalists can be held liable for sexually harassing entrepreneurs seeking their investment, an issue that has wracked Silicon Valley. The venture capital measure clarifies the Unruh Civil Rights Act, a 1959 California law that outlaws sexual harassment in business relationships outside the employer-employee framework. While California has yet to introduce legal action that would specifically extend these protections to Uber and Lyft rides, it’s easy to imagine such a proposal following suit.

“These working relationships that are outside traditional employment are growing and will continue to grow,” says Jessica Stender, senior counsel for Equal Rights Advocates, a women’s rights organization that sponsored the harassment training bill. “And so we need to accept that reality and accept that sexual harassment isn’t going to go away just because our working relationships change.” The relationship between a rider and driver, indirectly mediated by a megacorporation from California, is one such business arrangement that lawmakers are only now being forced to grapple with.

Lyft is often thought of as the “better boyfriend” of the two ride-hailing giants. The company capitalized on the 2017 #deleteUber campaign by donating to groups like the ACLU. Uber cofounder Travis Kalanick oversaw a corporate office rife with sexual harassment. But it is Uber, on an ongoing apology tour under new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, that has been more proactive in the past year when it comes to ensuring rider safety. Uber instituted continuous background checks on drivers in 2018, a policy that Lyft copied only this month after a woman’s tweet about a driver who tried to lock her in his car went viral. Last May, Uber also added a panic button that allows riders to call 911 from within the app and, in some markets, automatically sends their location data to emergency dispatchers. Lyft still lacks such a feature. And Uber was first to publicly commit to releasing a report on its number of sexual harassment and assault incidents later this year. In an email, Lyft said it plans to do the same.

The reports will mark an important turning point for these companies in recognizing sexual harassment and assault. Working with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and the Urban Institute, Uber has developed a list of 21 categories of sexual misconduct or assault that reports can be filed under, ranging from “asking personal questions” to “non-consensual sexual penetration.” The company expects reports of harassment to increase as more people become aware of which types of behavior are punishable. (Lyft has broadly agreed to work with Uber to ensure that its reports will track the same data.) The effort mirrors Facebook’s recent push to document how much hate speech, harassment, and violent content it is deleting in transparency reports. “I believe every major Internet service should do this quarterly, because it’s just as important as financial reporting,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in March. “Once we understand the prevalence of harmful content, we can see which companies are improving and where we should set the baselines.”

Such reports are common corporate practice: 85 percent of S&P 500 companies put out sustainability reports, which include measures of social responsibility, in 2017. There seems to be a dawning awareness in Silicon Valley that these massive institutions must be held to some level of public accountability.

Still, it’s unclear whether this sexual misconduct data will be readily available to users within the Uber or Lyft apps or buried in PDFs on their respective websites (Facebook’s data is tucked away on a transparency portal that’s difficult to find without Googling). Corporate social responsibility reports are often made to placate activists and investors rather than inform a company’s customer base. Tech companies notably lack something like a public health board, which reviews restaurants monthly and requires businesses to make their scores easily viewable in public by patrons. “It’s easy to hide behind this retro, one-year look that goes through your legal department,” says Kellie McElhaney, director of the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s got to be ongoing, constant reporting.”

There’s a risk that Uber and Lyft will view these disclosures as their answer to public pressure, rather than as a starting point to further reform. When it rolled out its report taxonomy, Uber went to great lengths to explain how it will train customer service reps to understand different types of assault and harassment, including putting them through a training course with a written learning guide. But neither Uber nor Lyft responded to questions about how they train drivers to avoid sexual harassment beyond broad rules buried in legal agreements. (Uber says that it plans to distribute a short video on how to prevent sexual assault to millions of riders and drivers in the future, but the clip has fewer than 100,000 views on YouTube and isn’t currently available in the app.) The companies have yet to take a proactive stance on informing drivers and riders of a clear code of conduct, instead defaulting to Silicon Valley’s preferred approach of ignoring problems until they metastasize into controversies.

Addressing these issues is likely to generate more negative headlines, limit the pool of possible drivers, and introduce more friction into the onboarding process. Silicon Valley famously hates anything that stands in the way of seamless, simple experiences. But the world is complex, and Uber and Lyft are no longer startups hawking magical “there’s an app for that” solutions. Accountability isn’t an option for billion-dollar megacorporations that are replacing public transportation—it’s a necessity.

Tielking uses Lyft much less than she used to, but she’s still trying to spur such accountability, one story at a time. In April she and another Stanford student, Michelle Bao, set up an Instagram account called TakeBackTheRide where people continue to share experiences dealing with harassment on ride-hailing platforms. But now, instead of being shown just to Lyft executives during a private meeting, these messages are being aired to the public. It’s harder to ignore a problem when everybody knows it exists. “I’ve always liked to use Lyft instead [of Uber], and I’ve always had a base faith in the company. But I think this was maybe something that hadn’t been brought to their attention in so much detail,” Tielking says. “I think once the pressure’s on them, they’re going to make the change.”

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