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Why a $15 Lyft coupon won’t fix sexual harassment

It began the first night I landed in Boston for a summer software engineering internship. I called a ride to my apartment and excitedly chatted with my driver about things to do in the city. I was sitting in the back seat behind my driver. We pulled up to my destination. As I was moving to open the car door, my Lyft driver turned around in his seat and blocked the handle, preventing me from leaving the car. He took out his cell phone with his other hand and told me that he’d only let me out after I gave him my number. This had never happened to me before, and I didn’t know what to do. My heart sank and sped up at the same time. My vision tunneled in on the door handle. It was very late, so nobody was out on the streets to help me. All I knew was that I needed to leave this stranger’s car, so I gave him what he wanted and jumped out. In the safety of my new apartment, I told myself to stop talking to my drivers so much and prayed this wouldn’t happen again.

Later that month, I was spending the weekend in Martha’s Vineyard with several friends. We were meeting each other at a beach to watch the sunset, so I called a Lyft to meet them. My ride began normally, but the mood shifted when the route took us through a dirt road in the woods. As the car pushed through the rougher terrain, my driver started asking questions about my personal life, and I told him I had a boyfriend. He started commenting on my appearance and told me that he would do so many dirty things to me if I were single. My eyes kept darting to the navigation app on his phone: Was he even taking me to the correct destination? I wanted to escape, but we were nowhere near a main road. I sat in silence, terrified. Finally exiting the wooded area, I was relieved to see a house with kids playing outside. I lied to my driver that I was meeting with these kids and left the car. They played along with my excuse, leading me to the beach’s private entrance so I could meet up with my friends. I’m not sure how my ride would have ended without this lucky encounter.

The third case happened during the last week of my internship. I had gone over a month of riding almost every day without issues on Lyft, and I was starting to feel more comfortable talking to my drivers again. My driver and I were chatting about his life, and he mentioned that he had recently broken up with his girlfriend. He started asking inappropriate questions about my romantic life and asked me out on a date, even though he was almost twice my age. I grew quieter with each question, fading into silence for the rest of the ride.

Right after each incident, I reported the ride with the app’s help bot, explaining what happened. I was shaken for several days, worrying over hypothetical outcomes. The reporting process contributed to my fear: I felt that it was impersonal and vague. Safety issues are not listed in the initial options, and it was unclear whether to report my driver for rude actions, unsafe behavior or “other.” Not that it mattered anyway, because the bot always responded the same way — by asking me the best way to follow up.

A day or two after I submitted each report, I received an email from Lyft customer support. In short, it assured me that my safety was Lyft’s top priority, promising that I would not be paired with this driver again and mentioning that “the required course of action” was taken. This particular phrase stuck with me over the next weeks. I was glad that I would never see this driver again, but my fear was still there. What would keep me safe from future harassment or assault? What if these drivers were paired with other women and did the same thing, or even committed sexual assault? How could Lyft guarantee the safety of all women on the platform? I could understand that the specific actions toward my driver were not shared due to privacy concerns, but I still wanted to know what general actions Lyft took in response to these cases. I replied to this thread asking for more information about Lyft’s reporting process; the response confirmed that I was only able to know I wouldn’t ride with this driver anymore.

That August, I got the chance to tour a number of successful tech companies in the Bay Area I felt nervous when I saw that Lyft was on the list. We first walked through the office’s several floors, admiring its cool light displays and ergonomic furniture. After the tour, we settled into a Q&A session with three engineers, one university recruiter and one employee on the operational side. The session started out normally, with questions of engineering projects, work culture and work-life balance. I knew that I needed to speak up, but I was afraid of saying it the wrong way, worried that my problem was not large enough. In my head, I ran through the story over and over, not wanting my emotions to discredit my experience. As I sensed the session coming to an end, I swallowed my fear and raised my hand. I gave the panel an overview of what had happened to me this summer, but as I talked, my fear from each moment returned in full force. After pausing briefly to wipe away my tears, I asked them what Lyft is planning to do to improve the reporting process for assault and harassment victims.

Their response felt a bit contradictory to me. Although Lyft constantly stresses how important customer safety is, I felt as if none of them had actually listened. I needed to speak up again in the panel, so I voiced possible changes I would make: creating driver sexual harassment and assault training, making the help bot and reporting process more empathetic, adding a panic button.

After the tour, I learned that Lyft’s drivers do not receive sexual harassment or assault training, as its drivers are considered contractors, not employees. Because of this classification, Lyft is not responsible for its drivers’ negligent actions. Why did a company so focused on user safety and trust have such a clear knowledge gap between different areas of the company?

Most of the engineers began to de-escalate the situation instead of considering change until a female engineer responded and said she would look into making changes to the reporting process. I was ecstatic, and we exchanged contact information. We spent the next few weeks discussing the current user flow and my ideas for potential improvements, and she reached out to software engineering and operations teams to learn more about the problem. She created a case and passed it to the operations side of the company. And so my wait began.

Two months passed by. I emailed her again, and she said the case had been transferred to the safety team, that somebody would be calling me “to address these concerns” soon. I received a call and voicemail that week, which I missed because I was in class. Over the next few weeks, I repeatedly left messages and tried to contact this person but heard no response. I eventually emailed my contact again to have somebody else call me.

This call from Trust and Safety came in December of 2018. I had just made it home for winter break. Our conversation centered around the aspects of the reporting process, where I kept asking for general actions Lyft had taken in the past in response to harassment and assault claims. The worker repeated that this was not public information and that Lyft takes the action they think is best in each case. To verify what I had heard during my tour, I asked about the training and background checks drivers undergo. The agent told me that drivers receive all the proper training and are screened for offenses. I later confirmed that Lyft currently performs background checks before accepting drivers to screen for sexual offenses, violent crime and other offenses, but guidance for driver behavior is minimal. Furthermore, the current behavior guidelines for Lyft drivers make no mention of sexual harassment or assault guidelines.  

I also probed about Lyft’s current suggestion for getting help in the middle of an unsafe ride, referencing Uber’s panic button that shared a user’s live location with emergency dispatchers and called 911. The agent suggested calling Lyft’s crisis line, but the number is not located anywhere on the app. To reach the number, I had to go to the app’s help page, click on the Help Center button that took me to a web page, and know to search for the reporting topic, where I could at last click a button to “Contact the Safety Team.” In an emergency situation, I would be too paralyzed by fear to locate this page. She also said that the best way to escape an unsafe situation in Lyft was to cancel the ride. I was confused by this answer, thinking back to my experience in the isolated, wooded path. If I had simply canceled the ride, how would I seek help from others nearby? Would I have tried to run blindly in one direction and hope to find a main road? Calling 911 is a good option here, but without live location-sharing, I would have no idea where to send dispatchers. I asked if Lyft was planning to change the process soon — to make it easier to get immediate help — and the operator said no. She kept telling me that because she had never experienced harassment or assault in her Lyft rides, she thought the company was already doing a pretty good job.

A day later, she emailed me to follow up, gifting me a $15 coupon for the Lyft app.

In the six months between my first harassment report in June and this call in December, I heard from two friends who had also been harassed in Lyft rides. One friend reported a ride in the end of December: The response was exactly the same one I had received six months earlier. No changes had been made to “address these concerns.”

Reports of harassment and assault in ride-sharing apps are rising, with CNN reporting that 120 Uber and Lyft drivers in the U.S. have been accused of sexually assaulting or abusing their passengers in the last four years. According to the National Council for Home Safety and Security, 15 percent of women have had to report an uncomfortable encounter with a driver to on Lyft; on Uber, 23 percent. Yet the most we can expect is a coupon.

Lyft’s decision to end forced arbitration for employees, drivers and riders was a step in the right direction, but there is still more the company can do to support victims. Although the company continuously stresses the paramount importance of rider safety, there have been no other significant changes in the app or company policy following the forced arbitration decision. I see several possible changes that could improve the reporting process and behavior of drivers:

  1. Lyft should make public the general actions it takes when responding to harassment and assault claims. It is understandable that information about individual cases cannot be shared, but it would be useful to victims and the public to hear about Lyft’s past responses to reports of various severity.
  2. Lyft should make the reporting process more empathetic. Even having the chat bot respond differently when a user mentions assault or harassment would make a difference in a victim’s feelings of safety.
  3. Lyft should make sexual harassment and assault training mandatory for its drivers, even though it is not required for contract employees. These employees are in close quarters with strangers, and they have a clear power advantage in the driver’s seat.
  4. Lyft should add a panic button that gives riders quick access to emergency dispatchers and shares their live locations. In scenarios where a rider cannot safely talk on the phone or does not have time to search for a Lyft number, this feature could save lives.

To be told that Lyft doesn’t consider sexual harassment and assault a serious enough problem when they have a valuation of $15 billion stings. This is an issue that continues to be buried in the news, and we need to stop letting companies get away with excuses. Lyft should turn its words into action and make proactive policy and software changes to reduce future cases of sexual harassment and assault. By continuing to put off these changes, Lyft will keep negatively impacting the physical and mental health of real people.

— Allison Tielking ’20

Contact Allison Tielking at atielkin ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Allison is collecting stories of sexual harassment and assault in ride-sharing apps, which will hopefully be used in a larger investigation of these companies. If you would like to contribute (can be anonymous), please fill out this form: https://goo.gl/forms/3eheLSEwKkGNAlDj2.

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