By Erin Flaherty
Popular rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft have reinvented the public transportation industry. In 2017, these applications generated 65 percent more rides than traditional taxi services did in New York City, and since then, their popularity has continued to rise. Getting an Uber or Lyft is a simple and reliable way to get around. Users can hail a ride on their phone, get picked up from wherever they are, and payment is automatic once the user puts their information into their profile.
With the convenience of rideshare apps, however, comes many safety concerns. Uber, the leader of the rideshare app industry, has a multi-step driver registration process, which, according to The Street, a technology news outlet, includes “their Social Security information, driver's license, insurance and car registration - all of which are run through private background-check firms.” However, many individuals, especially female users, have expressed concerns that these steps are not enough to protect riders. According to The New York Times, Uber received 3,045 reports of sexual assaults during its rides in the United States in 2018, and 42 percent of those reporting sexual assault were drivers. Female drivers and passengers are a disproportionately large percentage of the victims of these attacks.
Uber has responded to these accusations, saying that “there's nothing more important than the safety of the drivers and riders we serve … we will continue to put safety at the heart of our business and expect to roll out more features this year”. In early 2019, Uber released a "Women Preferred" feature for female drivers in Saudi Arabia, where they can request to only drive female passengers. Despite pleas from US drivers for this feature to be introduced in the United States, Uber hasn’t taken any legitimate and concrete actions to ensure the safety of female drivers and riders in the United States. When asked why they aren’t considering implementing this in the US, Uber has simply responded by saying that they have “no plans to make that an option at the moment” , and that they believe that they have "built the safest transportation option in more than 290 cities around the world”.
Sexual assault is just one of the fundamental problems that female drivers for Uber face. They also earn 7% less per hour than their male counterparts. These factors combined explain why only 14% of Uber’s drivers are women. Nick Allen, the founder of Shuddle, a ride service for children, further explains this phenomenon; “this economic opportunity has excluded women -- not purposefully, but women have self-selected out of it. And the number one reason they do that is the perception of safety or lack thereof.” Uber’s idleness in regards to this issue has created clear gender disparities within their employee demographic.
Michael R. Pelletz, an entrepreneur from Charlton, Massachusetts, former Uber driver, and father of 2 teenage daughters, decided to take matters into his own hands after being made aware of Uber’s female-user safety issues . He started Safr, which he planned to make the first female-only rideshare service. The service was successful in the few cities where it was launched, with its annual sales coming in at around $7 million a year. This success was short lived; as described by Pelletz, “the team that was put in charge of carrying out these goals failed as they were too afraid of getting sued, so they started to allow men to ride and drive”. The concerns that Safr’s legal team were addressing were in regards to Title VII of the
Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits gender discrimination in employment at the federal level. However, legal supporters of Safr have stated that Bona fide occupational qualifications, or BFOQs for short, allow Safr to only hire women since this is essential to their purpose and mission as a company. BFOQs are employment qualifications that employers are allowed to consider while making decisions about hiring and retention of employees. For example, a casting company can exclusively interview women if they are casting a female role in a show.
And, as Pauline M. Tarife explains in her paper for Rutgers Law Review, “employers have been successful in establishing gender BFOQs for Playboy Bunnies, female-only gyms, prison guards at correctional facilities, psychiatric health care specialists, locker room attendants ,and custodians for single-sex facilities."
Nonetheless, despite the prevalence of BFOQs, they still posed too great a risk to Safr for its woman-only business model to continue. Ultimately, legal discrimination concerns could go either way if lawsuits were to arise. This unpredictability stems from the case-by-case nature of Civil Rights Act and BFOQ questions. Both policies leave much room of interpretation of specific situations. When asked about these legal concerns, Pelletz refuted them, stating that “before [he] started [Safr], [he]went to civil rights attorneys … this is all about solving a health and wellness problem for women who cannot participate fully in ride-sharing because of safety issues”.
This decision both undermined Safr’s original mission and made its chances at financial success much more slim since it was no longer differentiated from Uber and Lyft in any sort of way. Nonetheless, Pelletz plans to start a new female-only rideshare service in the future under the name WOKE. He hopes to fulfill the plan that he had for Safr before discrimination concerns led the company astray from its mission. He says that he plans to stick to his guns and isn’t afraid to face legal charges since he is certain that is mission is legally justified. Although past attempts at launching this type of service have failed, the demand and need for a safer option for riders and drivers alike is still present, and individuals like Pelletz are not willing to rest until there is a solution.