Wharton's Lindsey Cameron discusses her research on the unexpected social and cultural benefits of ridesharing services.

The ubiquity of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft means most people have probably spent time in one of the cars as either as a passenger or a driver. In her research, Wharton management professor Lindsey Cameron took a closer at the nature of the interactions between Uber drivers and riders, and she found there’s more going on than just efficient transportation. The interactions are often mutually beneficial, resulting in aid, comfort, friendship and even job opportunities. Cameron joined Knowledge at Wharton to discuss her paper, “Support for Social and Cultural Capital Development in Real-time Ridesharing Services,” which was co-authored by University of Michigan doctoral student Vaishnav Kameswaran and professor Tawanna Dillahunt. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge at Wharton: What was the inspiration for this research?

Lindsey Cameron: Uber, Lyft, all the ride hailing companies, they get a bad rap in the press. Through my work as part of a larger research project where I’ve been interviewing drivers for the past three years — I’ve even been a driver — there are some really positive things that are happening in the car. There are people who are unsung heroes. With my colleagues, Vaishnav Kameswaran and Professor Tawanna Dillahunt from the University of Michigan’s School of Information, we wanted to take a look at some of the benefits from this work. Beyond people just earning income — which is not insignificant — what are some of the social and cultural, non-monetary benefits of this work?

Knowledge at Wharton: The title of the paper refers to social and cultural capital. Could you give me some examples of these benefits?

Cameron: Social capital is one of the benefits you get from being in a network of people, whether that’s cooperation, emotional support, information being shared, trust or reciprocity. Let me ground that in a few specific examples we’ve seen from both our drivers and the riders. With drivers, they’re on a lot of these forums — Facebook, Uberpeople.net, Reddit — and they’re sharing information. Where is the best place to go to get some high-volume rides? Where is the best place to avoid the drunk people if you’re a woman and you don’t want to deal with that at 11 p.m.? That sharing of informational resources is an example of social capital.

“People were really proud of the city that they worked in, and they wanted to share what they loved about the city with the folks who were in the car.”

But there’s also social capital being exchanged between riders and drivers. There’s emotional support. In the paper, I talk about a young woman who actually came out as a lesbian to her Uber driver. The driver was able to pull the car aside and asked, “What’s the matter? Tell me what’s happening.” He stopped working to offer her that emotional support. Again, that’s another type of social capital, this time being directed to the passenger.

Now, cultural capital is about learning more about the environment that you’re in, whether it’s your local context like your city or what’s happening in the national or an international theater. Some really common examples are, a rider gets in the car and the driver is taking this person to a place they’ve never seen before. Or they have a conversation about a political event, such as the refugee situation in Germany, that they would not have had otherwise.

Many of the drivers and riders we interviewed are based in Detroit, which is going through a huge revitalization. What a lot of the drivers said is, “My riders took me to a part of Detroit I had never seen before” or “a part that I thought was all blighted and run down, and I see it’s been completely renovated. It’s a renaissance.” In this way, the driver becomes almost like a tour guide to their own city. Once they have this knowledge, they can share it with others. So, they’re cultural ambassadors to the new set of riders that are coming in. This is just to give you a fine-grain sense of what social and cultural capital looks like. What are the new things you’re learning through people or about the environment you’re in just from driving your car around.

Knowledge at Wharton: You interviewed a number of Uber drivers and riders for this paper. What else did you find in talking to them?

“There are all these beautiful ways there are these unsung heroes who are making a contribution to their community.”

Cameron: People were really proud of the city that they worked in, and they wanted to share what they loved about the city with the folks who were in the car. The unexpected acts of kindness were really heartwarming and mind-blowing because on the news, we tend to hear more about the negative stories.

Not only was there this story about the woman who came out to her driver, there were also drivers who took care of their sick passengers. They’ve seen people who are on the side of the road and needed help, and they’ve offered assistance. Or victims of domestic violence. There are all these beautiful ways these unsung heroes contributed to their community. That’s one of the more surprising and, I think, untold stories I found in my data.

Knowledge at Wharton: If you’re a driver or a passenger, that ride might be a blip on the map of your daily life. But you’re saying these random interactions could end up drawing unexpected benefits. Is there an untapped potential here that ride-share companies could be taking advantage of because they are putting us in the path of a stranger we wouldn’t have met otherwise?

Cameron: These are some of the implications that I highlighted with two colleagues at the University of Michigan. What could ride-hailing companies do to augment this exchange of information? Maybe if there is a person that you’re picking up from the airport, and they have the information that this person is usually based in Chicago but now they’re in Dallas, maybe the app will suggest an alternative way to go that shows them new areas to go around the city. Or maybe there’s just little tidbits of information the app has picked up about both people that they can use to match them.

I think there are really interesting ways these companies can help make connections between drivers and riders. Even between drivers and drivers, a Slack group, for example, allows greater information sharing because there is a social, a relational aspect in this work.

Knowledge at Wharton: Even though it’s an autonomous job — it’s you and your app — it sounds like people have formed communities around this.

Cameron: People have found communities. People have become friends with folks that they have found off the app. Like, ‘real’ friends in ‘real’ life going out to bars and to concerts and things. People have found jobs for each other. One person actually found a termite inspector for his house through a contact from the rider. In an interesting switch, I interviewed a driver who’s a manager at a manufacturing plant, and he hired one of the riders who was in his back seat. He was an undergraduate student studying in engineering, looking for an internship. Again, it’s another example of connections that started in the car — this really small, intimate space — that grew and continued outside of the car.

Knowledge at Wharton: What’s next for this research?

Cameron: I have some work that’s coming out where I hone in on the algorithms. How do algorithms sit in for a boss? And why do workers really feel this sense of autonomy even when they’re interacting with an algorithm? That’s one set of work that I have coming up.

“I interviewed a driver who’s a manager at a manufacturing plant, and he hired one of the riders who was in his back seat.”

Another paper looks at people’s stances to the work. Some people feel like they’re in partnership and privileged to be a driver, and some people feel like this work is similar to low-wage slavery. Those are pretty intense words — their words, not mine. I’m looking at what makes a difference between these two groups. So, that’s some new work I have coming on the horizon.

My two colleagues on this, Vaishnav Kameswaran and Tawanna Dillahunt, are going even deeper into under resourced communities, which usually have a lack of access to reliable transportation. They’re looking at developing and piloting a time-banking system for people to share rides to be able to get to health care appointments and things like that. This is part of a bigger, larger-term project for them. But I think it’s a really great opportunity to use these ride-hailing platforms to go to segments of the population that don’t have access to reliable transportation and to get them to their jobs, health care and things they really need.