Transportation: Women-only car services fill niche, but are they legal?


BOSTON >> Ride-hailing companies catering exclusively to women are cropping up and raising thorny legal questions, namely: Are they discriminatory?

In Massachusetts, Chariot for Women is promising to launch a service featuring female drivers picking up only women and children. Drivers will even have to say a "safe word" before a ride starts.

Michael Pelletz, a former Uber driver, said he started the company with his wife, Kelly, in response to instances of drivers for ride-hailing services charged with assaulting female passengers.

He believes their business plan is legal, and he's prepared to make his case in court, if it comes to that. The couple had planned an April 19 launch but now say they're pushing it back to the summer to make sure their app can handle demand they say has exceeded expectations.

"We believe that giving women and their loved ones peace of mind is not only a public policy imperative, but serves an essential social interest," Pelletz said. "Our service is intended to protect these fundamental liberties."

In New York City, the owners of SheRides are also promising a reboot this summer.

Fernando Mateo, who co-founded the company with his wife, Stella, said the company put the brakes on its planned launch in 2014 after spending "tens of thousands" on legal fees as activists and male drivers threatened to sue. The company settled one challenge, he said.

"We were accused of all sorts of things," Mateo said. "So we went back to the drawing board."

When the company re-launches as SheHails, men will be permitted as drivers and passengers. It will be left to female drivers to accept male passengers, and for female passengers to accept rides from male drivers.

Legal in other countries

While taxis driven by and for women are common in Dubai and India, such businesses would likely run afoul of anti-discrimination laws in the U.S., industry and legal experts said.

Major ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft don't give users the option of requesting a driver based on gender. The Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, a trade group, says companies vary on whether women may request a female taxi driver.

"The safety issue is a really big deal," said Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at the Harvard Business School. "But you just can't discriminate. You can't turn people away."

On the employment side, the federal Civil Rights Act bans gender-based hiring except when deemed essential.

Courts have interpreted that "bona fide occupational qualification" clause very narrowly, said Elizabeth Brown, a business law professor at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Prisons, for example, have been permitted to hire female guards in select situations, but the airline industry was famously ordered to end the practice of hiring only women as flight attendants.


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