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Lyft's new service prioritizes non-binary, women drivers for non-binary, women riders

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The ride-hailing platform Lyft has rolled out a new service in five select cities called Women+ Connect. It gives nonbinary and women drivers priority to be matched with nonbinary and women riders. The new feature comes after numerous lawsuits accused the company of not doing enough to protect its customers from sexual assault and harassment. Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman from member station KQED in San Francisco has the story.

AZUL DAHLSTROM-ECKMAN, BYLINE: On a recent Friday evening in San Francisco's Mission District, people are starting their weekend at a queer bar called Mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF COCKTAIL SHAKER BEING SHAKEN)

DAHLSTROM-ECKMAN: Bartender Brianna Andrews (ph), who uses she/her pronouns, says that when it's time to leave, she doesn't feel safe using a ride-hailing app. She's had some creepy drivers.

BRIANNA ANDREWS: I honestly pretend to be married, like, most times.

DAHLSTROM-ECKMAN: She says if she knew her late-night driver wouldn't be a man...

ANDREWS: I would 100% do it. Yeah.

DAHLSTROM-ECKMAN: Women+ Connect is only a few weeks old, and nobody in Mother had tried it. So my colleague Chloe Morizono and I tested it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

CHLOE MORIZONO, BYLINE: OK. It's looking for a driver.

DAHLSTROM-ECKMAN: Lyft estimates about half of its riders are women, but only about 23% of its drivers are.

MORIZONO: But I feel like my last, I don't know, 20 drivers were all men.

DAHLSTROM-ECKMAN: The company says it wants to encourage more gender diversity among its drivers and make rides, quote, "more comfortable for women and nonbinary people."

MORIZONO: Hi, for Chloe? Hi.

DAHLSTROM-ECKMAN: The new feature doesn't guarantee a match with a woman or nonbinary person. It just makes it more likely. We get picked up by Kiva Henderson (ph). She's been driving for Lyft for almost eight years.

KIVA HENDERSON: Out of all the changes that they've made, I think this is one they should have made a long time ago 'cause the technology is always there. It's just, you know, priority.

DAHLSTROM-ECKMAN: But as a driver, it doesn't really make her feel safer because she still has to pick up male passengers. She says she relies on herself for safety.

HENDERSON: I work out. I got my own arms. You know, I have agility.

DAHLSTROM-ECKMAN: For years, Lyft and other ride-hailing companies like Uber have been facing pressure to do more to address sexual assault and harassment in their rides. There were more than 1,800 reported cases of sexual assault during Lyft rides in 2019. That's the most recent data available from the company.

LAUREL SIMES: They run the gamut from dirty talk and inappropriate comments, to grabbing and groping, all the way up to full sexual assault and rape.

DAHLSTROM-ECKMAN: Laurel Simes is an attorney representing plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit against Lyft. She says hundreds of lawsuits have been filed by her firm and others, alleging that Lyft hasn't done enough to protect its riders and drivers.

SIMES: Lyft should have been more careful in the selection of their drivers, and should be more careful in monitoring what goes on in the cars.

DAHLSTROM-ECKMAN: Simes welcomes the new feature, but says it's just a start. She says fingerprint, background checks and dash cams would make rides safer. Lyft CEO David Risher, meanwhile, maintains this new feature wasn't prompted by the lawsuits.

DAVID RISHER: It's not a response to that, but it does recognize, look, we live in a world where bad things happen. And we take safety so seriously.

DAHLSTROM-ECKMAN: He says that sexual assaults on Lyft account for less than 1% of total rides.

RISHER: But every single time one happens, we look at it really seriously, and we try to figure out, what could we have done better?

DAHLSTROM-ECKMAN: Risher says he doesn't think it's the right idea to record all rides, citing privacy concerns. But he did say that a new program will allow drivers to record if they want to. And he pointed to other Lyft safety features like real-time tracking of rides. Lyft says it plans to expand Women+ Connect to about 30 more cities in the coming weeks and months, eventually going nationwide.

For NPR News, I'm Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman
I was born and raised in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. Upon graduating high school, I left San Francisco to pursue a bachelor's degree in Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon in Eugene. I’ve worked as an arborist, bicycle mechanic, carpenter, zero waste educator, whitewater raft guide, and a freelance reporter for the Potrero View newspaper. My passions include everything outdoors, showing off my favorite spots in San Francisco, and most recently, swimming in the Bay. I look forward to joining the KALW news team as an Audio Academy fellow and using my time there to the fullest.
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