As Uber has come to dominate the ride-hailing industry, it's also come under fire for sexual assault complaints against its drivers. And while the smartphone-centric platform makes it shockingly easy for women passengers — and drivers — to be stalked or harassed, the problem isn't unique to Uber. Other ride-hailing services like Lyft, not to mention regular taxis, also have issues with sexual harassment and assault.
That's why one former Uber driver, Michael Pelletz, decided to create a woman-only ride-hailing service. It's called Chariot for Women, it's based in Boston, and it's scheduled to debut nationwide on April 19. More than 1,000 women have already signed up as drivers.
Pelletz, whose wife, Kelly, is the company's president, said he came up with the idea after a scary experience with an unstable passenger. He imagined how much more terrifying it would have been if he were a woman, and remembered that his wife had thought about driving for Uber but was too afraid to.
Chariot for Women will only hire women drivers, and will only accept women or children under 13 as passengers. Drivers will undergo intense background checks and will have to answer a security question every workday to confirm their identity. Passengers and drivers will be sent the same "safe word," so that passengers can confirm the driver is who she says she is.
There's also no surge pricing, transgender women are welcome as both drivers and passengers, and 2 percent of every fare will be donated to a "women-based" charity that customers can choose from a list.
This seems like a great idea, but it could have some problems
A lot of companies give lip service to women's safety, but it's not always the highest priority. Chariot for Women, though, bases its entire business model on helping women stay safer in a way that might actually work (as opposed to well-intentioned but ridiculous ideas like rape-prevention nail polish).
But how well it works will depend partly on how well it catches on. If women want to use the service but have to wait half an hour for a car because there aren't enough drivers, they'll probably turn to other services that have fewer safety protections.
There's also the fact that no background check is perfect, and that women can also be violent or creepy. Harassment complaints are no picnic for Uber, of course, but even one incident could easily be a public relations disaster for Chariot for Women. And while the service says it's trans-inclusive, there's the possibility a driver may mistakenly reject a trans passenger because the driver is transphobic or doesn't believe the passenger is a woman.
The biggest potential problem, though, is that Chariot for Women's premise might not be legal.
Civil rights lawyers told the Boston Globe that the ban on men would probably conflict with Massachusetts anti-discrimination laws, especially when it comes to hiring.
There are exceptions to these laws in places like prisons and women's shelters, where intimate contact with women is part of the job and gender is what the law calls a "bona fide occupational qualification." Fitness facilities have also won an exemption. But it's just not clear whether passenger transit services might fit that bill, and Chariot for Women would probably have to face a lawsuit to find out.
The company's lawyer argues that sex is definitely a "bona fide" qualification here, since safety and security are at issue.
And Pelletz told TechCrunch that he actually looks forward to legal challenges. "We want to show there’s inequality in safety in our industry," he said. "We hope to go to the US Supreme Court to say that if there’s safety involved, there’s nothing wrong with providing a service for women."