Finally, Technology Will Enable Black Men to Catch a Taxi! (Maybe) But at what cost to the community?
When Cornell Belcher was a young college graduate in the ‘90s, he often worked late hours as a waiter in an upscale Washington D.C. restaurant. When his shift ended at midnight, city buses were no longer running and rail service did not exist. This would normally not be a problem because taxis were still providing service. However, it was a huge problem; taxis would not stop for him.
Taxis would swerve around him and “pick up white patrons, or my white colleagues.”
Cornell, now a political contributor of CNN and president of Brilliant Corners, an international democratic polling firm, would lament, “I came face-to-face with overt discrimination in a way that, even as a child of the South, I frankly never experienced in such a direct way.”
In the fall of 1999, actor Danny Glover, his daughter Mandisa, then a senior at New York University, and her collegeroommate, stood at 116th and Seventh Avenue trying to hail a taxi. Five yellow taxis passed them by. He filed a complaint with the City Taxi and Limousine Commission, charging discrimination. Glover made a comment that revealed the type of acquiesce many Black men experience when he stated; “I don’t expect to have a taxi. I’ve been conditioned to think that someone is not going to stop for me.”
A decade later, Christopher Darden (remember him?) tried to hail a taxi while the Good Morning America cameras were on. He was successful in the daytime, but after the sun went down, his luck changed, finally getting a ride when a Black driver stopped for him after two taxis passed him by.
This is a well-known and common experience for African American men. The fact that the chances of a Black man hailing a taxiis much lower than that of his white peers, is a reminder that African Americans still have plenty of reasons to be conscious of being Black, even in the most innocuous of situations. When a Black man tries to hail a taxi, he is wondering if his color will be the deciding factor on whether he’s successful or not. That is an experience totally foreign to a white person.
This problem is not your common Black and white racism. Very few taxi drivers in New York are white. According to a recent study conducted by Bruce Schaller, a taxi industry consultant based in Brooklyn, 84 percent of the over 99,000 taxi drivers in New York City are immigrants. They come from places such as Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, the West Indies, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. It does not take them long to learn the New York City landscape, and apparently, it does not take them long to learn the racisms and prejudices of America. Even the Black immigrant taxi drivers hold this same view of African American males.
The problem is not limited to the traditional taxis. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research stated that Black Uber and Lyft userswaited 35 percent longer and received higher cancellations rates than their white counterparts. Also, according to this research, having an African American sounding name could also get their ride cancelled. Names such a Todd, Allison and Brad would get fast and reliable service, but if your name is Aisha, Darnell or Rasheed, you may have a very long wait, if you get a ride at all. Uber and Lyft blame this on the individual drivers and say this is not a reflection of their companies. Lyft drivers can see their passengers name and profile picture before they accept a passenger. This information is available for Uber only after they hit accept. Presently, the revamped taxi industry is still not stamping out racism, even though the element of money is totally eliminated.
To look at this problem from a wider lens, Black men who have trouble catching a taxi is part of a broader anxiety directed towards them. Law abiding teenager Travon Martin was killed for simply defending himself against an armed adult stranger who confronted him. His killer’s intrinsic fear of Black males found an understanding audience and that was enough to set him free, even though he was the one who actually created the incident. When a taxi driver passes a young Black man, regardless of the time or circumstances, no one should be surprised. It’s part of the American biography. Is anyone surprised about this problem?
However, there’s a chance technology will help solve this problem.
Autonomous cars are in our future. The transition will not be overnight, but the testing is already being done in San Francisco, Phoenix, and Pittsburg.
The accepted scenario goes something like this; Uber (and other ride-sharing apps) are on the rise and Yellow Cab use is on the decline. Eventually, Yellow Cabs will be replaced by Uber drivers. After Uber drivers are in place, they will be replaced with self-driving cars, effectively eliminating the need for human taxi drivers. The transportation landscape of New York City, as well as the rest of the country, will be changed forever.
Of course, this change will not be that simple, but there are some facts that can’t be ignored. Uber plans on replacing their human drivers with autonomous cars. They announced in February of 2015 that they will build a fleet of automated cars. These cars are equipped with about two dozen cameras, radar and lidar technology, GPS and technology that use lasers to “see” and interpret their environment. Machine learning algorithms enable the car to traverse its surroundings. The cars know the difference between a fire hydrant, a stop sign, and a traffic light. Transportation Institute claimed that self-driving cars were involved in fewer accidents than cars driven by humans, even though a human was killed by a self-driving car a while back.
On the surface, this technology is good news for Black customers. Taxis will be able to pick up and transport anyone to anyplace at any time. Physical money does not need to be exchanged, the thoughts of racist taxi drivers do not need to be considered, and most important, service would be extended to everyone equally. Computers are not racist. Right?
We are not in the clear yet. The same algorithms that can distinguish between a fire hydrant and a stop sign can also be used to distinguish between a Black person and a white person. Those same algorithms can teach a computer which areas are more likely to be trouble. We have to ask ourselves what type of data will be fed and analyzed for deep learning. Does data such as income level, crime rates, and ethnicity have a place in autonomous car technology? If that type of data is collected, Blacks will still find it difficult to catch a taxi.
I don’t consider myself to be a Luddite for nothing. I image that technology can also be used in a way that reflects the norms and attitude of society in which it is created. It will not be too far-fetched to see that the Ubers that travel to places like the South Bronx will be ruggedized: Littletank like vehicles, ideal for war-torn areas, creeping throughout the neighborhood. In low income areas, there’s a tendency to make things that could withstand the toughest wear-and-tear. In the parks, there are designs devoid of aesthetics or finesse. Instead everything is hard.
There are cement slabs for tables and benches, stores and banks are fiberglass fortresses, the furniture of national fast food restaurants are designed to be indestructible and uncomfortable (they do not want people hanging around) and bland brick housing projects, devoid of any artistic embellishments beside a place to store people, dot the landscape. These designs are not made to inspire, only to gain security with concrete and steel. The ruggedizing of the self-driving cars will follow this idea. There’s no reason to think that the autonomous cars in the Bronx and Brooklyn neighborhoods will be the same as the cars in Manhattan. We don’t have to look any further for proof of that. Today, if you compare the midtown yellow cabs of Manhattan to the beat-up and worn-out taxis that serve the Bronx, you can see where we are going with this.
It can get worse. Suppose security surveillance cameras are attached to thesevehicles, or at least some of them. What type of data could law enforcement collect and what will they do with it? At least these are issues we should think about. With the recent data breaches experienced by Facebook, it is not far-fetched to believe all collected data is not is not for benevolent services. Big data analytic companies would salivate at the chance to collect trillions of points of data that these automated vehicles could collect. This data collection will be at the expense people who are the subject of the collection, but who have no control over how the data is going to be used.
Currently, many cities use crime predictive software to help to police troubled areas and predict the types and location of crimes. The majority of this software is used in impoverished areas and most of the people living in these areas are African-American and Hispanic. This predictive software is fed a constant stream of historical data, such as time and location of crimes as well as “hotspots” of crime such as the locations of convenience stores and ATM machines. The information produces maps which are drawn to identify the places with the highest crime rates and/or the potential for crimes.
These are the areas that are highly policed, which results in more arrest, those arrests are feed into the data, and then those areas are marked as high crime rate areas, and those areas are marked for high policing. This creates a cycle that is difficult to break.
Imagine taking the present scenario and adding hundreds of cameras in those same areas. The cameras will feed more data into this digital cauldron and is further stirred with algorithms. It would be naive to think law enforcement would ignore the opportunity and potential for the goldmine of data that will be collected. Each self-driving cab is equipped with dozens of cameras. There is a very real potential for poor neighborhoods to become places where cameras are a ubiquitous part of the landscape, not unlike those dystopian societies depicted in books and movies and not unlike some cities in China. Mugshots can be fed into the system and suspects will be flagged as they walk the streets. One of the glaring flaws in facial recognition technology is that it does not work well with people with dark skin. This technology will affect criminals as well as law abiding citizens. This is a high price for a cab ride.
There’s a possibility that self-driving taxis could help mitigate the negative effects of the present racism, but as all new technology, it creates a whole new slew of other problems that have to be dealt with. Roadblocks (both legal and technical) abound for Uber, as they try to position themselves in the future. However, the technology will force its way into our society, regardless of the obstacles. Change is coming, but meanwhile, Black men will consider catching a taxi a sketchy endeavor. Some will have to use their white spouses and friends to act as decoys for them, some will give up and find different transportation, some will continue trying and until a taxi actually stops for them and some willbe not try out all; arranging their personal logistics to match more reliable modes of transportation.
I’ll be in New York this summer and I may or may not be in a situation where I have to hail a taxi. But if I do try to hail a cab, like many other African Americans, I’m going to hope and expect for the best experience, but prepare mentally for the worse. And no technology will change that.