On Thursday, Uber released a study revealing it received reports of 3,045 sexual assaults during its rides last year in the United States. This four-digit figure feels like a nationwide four-alarm fire, especially against the backdrop of a lawsuit filed yesterday by 19 women against Lyft over alleged sexual assaults by its drivers. The last few years have been haunted by a loudening chorus warning about the myriad dangers of ride sharing: not only the risk of sexual assault, but the way reports of such incidents may be ignored and suppressed, as is alleged about Lyft. Now this: numbers, digits—far too many of them.
That said, the shock of that figure softens, just a bit, when contextualized: “The New York Police Department, which keeps a register of sex crimes and rapes that occur on transit systems, counted 533 in 2018,” as Kate Conger points out in the New York Times. (That number is just in New York, as opposed to countrywide, which is what the Uber data reflect.) As for ride-sharing’s analog version: There were 14 reported rapes in cabs in 2015, according to the New York Police Department.
Then there is this sentence from Uber’s report, presumably meant as reassurance: “This year, nearly 4 million Uber trips happened every day in the US—more than 45 rides every second.” All of which is to suggest that the problem is not specific to Uber, nor is the number of reported sexual assaults during Uber rides astronomical, relative to its scale.
Except, no number of sexual assaults is minor. Usually, scale is comforting. Whenever wading into the ocean and flashing to the Jaws theme song, I tell myself: “You’re more likely to die in a car crash!” (Which is comforting until I return to my car.) But, given the accusations against Lyft, which include allegedly ignoring and mishandling reports of sexual assault by drivers, scale can also feel like a liability: an excuse to let people fall through the cracks, a drift toward dehumanization. All the easier to be swept under the rug.
Scale is also a defense: “At such a large scale, Uber’s platform ultimately reflects the world in which we operate—both the good and the bad,” reads the report. Uber highlights the new measures its taken to improve upon the world in which they operate, including a panic button for riders, more rigorous driver checks, ongoing screening for new criminal offenses, and “technology that allows us to check in with customers if we detect a potential crash or unexpected long stop during a trip.” Still, aside from all these “tools,” riders are left to consider that number: 3,045 sexual assaults in a year.
Constant calculations and negotiating risk are a fundamental piece of navigating “the world in which we operate,” particularly as a woman, amid pervasive sexual assault. These endless and terrifying stats are manifested into snap decisions: whether to turn onto this dark street corner, who to stand next to on the subway, whether that cab looks safe. It’s optimistically weighing the potential safeguards at play while hopping in a Lyft or when a food delivery comes to your door late at night. Then it’s reading in the news that those safeguards are perhaps not as strong as you might have imagined.
When threat is all-pervasive, the narrow slicing of relative minimal risk can feel kind of beside the point. There are many, many more numbers in the Uber study, which breaks down reports by type of sexual assault, including this one: “Non-Consensual Sexual Penetration” was reported in roughly 1 in 5,000,000 trips from 2017 to 2018. That’s approximately 0.00002% of Uber trips in the United States. How many zeros after the decimal before safety feels guaranteed—in an Uber and in the world at large?