Future Tense

A D.C. Ride-Sharing Service Illegally Discriminated Against Minority Communities for Nearly Two Years

Via's service map.
The current service map for Via, a ride-share company that excludes minority communities in Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C., has some of the world’s strongest nondiscrimination laws, with a robust Human Rights Act that protects a whopping 20 traits, from race and sex to political affiliation and personal appearance. That doesn’t mean, however, that discrimination never occurs in the District—or that it’s always remedied promptly. On Friday, the Washington Post revealed that Via, a popular ride-sharing service, has been violating the city’s nondiscrimination laws since fall of 2016 by excluding two of the District’s predominantly black neighborhoods from its coverage area. Even worse, the city has failed to enforce its own laws against the service, undermining its putative commitment to equal rights.

The story of Via’s illegal service in Washington is a vivid illustration of how a company’s policies can disproportionately burden minorities even if the company itself harbored no explicit animus. Although it recently introduced private rides, Via is primarily a ride-pooling service like Lyft Line or Uber Pool, allowing drivers to pick up and drop off multiple passengers. When it launched in the District, it hoped to catch riders bailing on Metro over seemingly endless safety maintenance. But unlike Uber and Lyft, it covered only a segment of the city, encompassing downtown D.C. and some surrounding neighborhoods, mostly to the north.

A few affluent areas were excluded from this service map, namely upper Northwest near the Maryland border. But the biggest exclusion, by far, was Wards 7 and 8, which span the majority-black, lower-income neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. A Via spokeswoman told the Post that it excluded these wards because it planned “to start operations in the densest area of the city” then “expand outward” at a later date. That may be true. But in pursuing this plan, the company appeared not to care that its service area looks gerrymandered to carve out minority communities.

These communities already face discrimination and lack of service. Many restaurants refuse to deliver food there, and there is some evidence that ride-share drivers may be hesitant to pick up passengers there. Unfortunately, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the city to prove that Via omitted this area because of its racial makeup. But that doesn’t matter, because a 2014 measure called the Vehicle-for-Hire Innovation Amendment Act prohibits the company’s scheme. The act explicitly states that “a company that uses digital dispatch shall provide service throughout the entire District.” By refusing to serve a large chunk of the city, Via was violating the law.

Somehow, though, city officials did not seem to notice until the Post pointed it out to them. The Department of For-Hire Vehicles, a government agency that regulates ride-sharing, authorized Via to commence service in spite of its limited map. DFHV spokesman Neville Waters told the Post that Via “has met the requirements” to operate in the city, though it obviously has not. Most likely, the DFHV simply didn’t realize that the city government had imposed on equal-service rule on all ride-share companies.

That oversight irritated the D.C. Council, which expected its law to be enforced. Council member Mary Cheh, who drafted the 2014 act, confirmed that it was designed to guarantee equal service. “I meant to be very, very clear about that,” she told the Post, adding that “part of the whole benefit of the app services was supposed to be to provide service throughout the District.” (Cheh is right, of course: Perhaps the strongest case for ride-hailing apps is their supposed ability to transcend discrimination that plagues taxi services—a case that Via undercuts, as does some recent research.) On Thursday, Mayor Muriel Bowser gave the city 90 days to comply with the law and expand coverage, or face penalties.

Via’s D.C. saga serves as a reminder that local governments often need to innovate in order to protect the rights of their residents. Nondiscrimination laws like the District’s Human Rights Act cover ride-sharing services, but they’re often inelegant vehicles for taking on a company like Via; proving race discrimination in this context isn’t easy. Luckily, Washington already has a measure that expressly bars ride-sharing services from denying service to some portion of the city. Yet even then, Via was able to flout this law for nearly two years. The lesson here, then, is twofold: Cities need to update their laws to make ride-sharing companies serve residents equally—and they need to enforce those laws vigorously so that businesses like Via can’t hide their illegality in plain sight.

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Mark Joseph Stern covers courts and the law for Slate.