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Women-only ride services are fully legal, despite naysayers

[A woman sits in the front seat of a packed taxi cab during the evening rush hour December 20, 2005 in New York City. / Getty Images]

Women-only ride-sharing services certainly seem to make sense following a spate of reports in which female passengers have been allegedly attacked, sexually assaulted and discriminated against by both Uber and traditional taxi drivers.

But how can a segregated ride service exist today at the exclusion of men? Isn’t that discriminatory?

“In the context of a women-only ride share program I don’t think it would breach the human rights code,” says Nicole Simes, an employment and human rights lawyer at MacLeod Law Firm in Toronto. “Presumably the purpose is to reduce sexual violence and harassment against women which is a justifiable reason for the differential treatment.”

The Ontario Human Rights Code protects people against discrimination on several grounds, one of which is gender, and there is a legal test to determine if, in fact, discrimination occurred. One of the determining factors looks at whether there was a justifiable reason for the unfair treatment and Simes believes in this case there is.

She likens the exclusivity of a women-only ride-sharing service to a practice employed by the Toronto Transit Commission, which accommodated women-only requests to make stops at non-designated bus stops during certain hours of the day. That ended in 2011 when the TTC extended the privilege to all riders.

Businesses, groups and organizations whose founding principles ride on gender, ethnic or religious exclusivity are not uncommon. Women-only gyms and countless social, cultural and religious groups exist based on what some might consider discriminatory practices. But Simes says exemptions are made because the human rights code allows for these groups to exist in order to break down barriers and help members achieve equal opportunity.

The concept of segregated ride-sharing services in Canada is gaining momentum following numerous offences allegedly made by Uber drivers against female passengers. Reports of sexual assaults by Uber drivers in Ontario and around the world continue to mount, raising questions about how the service vets drivers.

In response to the safety scare, Boston is set to start Chariots for Women, a service which employs female drivers exclusively and services only female passengers and their children. Former Uber drive Michael Pelletz told Insurance Journal that he started the service in response to instances of drivers being charged with assaulting female passengers. And though he foresees legal challenges, Pelletz believes safety is worth fighting for.

“We look forward to legal challenges,” Pelletz told Tech Crunch. “We want to show there’s inequality in safety in our industry. We hope to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to say that if there’s safety involved, there’s nothing wrong with providing a service for women.”

In New York City, the founders of SheRides had to curb plans to launch its service in 2014 after spending thousands on legal fees in the face of threats by activists and male drivers. The company will re-launch as SheHails and unlike its first attempt, it will allow men as drivers and passengers. The difference this time will be it is up to female drivers to accept male passengers and for female passengers to accept rides from male drivers.

But a women-only ride service in Canada is likely 18 months to two years away, if at all in the offing, estimates Jim Bell, the executive director of the Canadian Taxi Association.

“It would be very challenging because of the scarcity of female drivers in the taxi cab market,” Bell says. “And there are not enough female passengers so the level of service becomes very challenging. How much are people willing to pay for that service and unless you have economies of scale you would have to charge more for the trip and again, in general, people feel safe getting into a licensed taxi cab.”

However, in Winnipeg earlier this year, an exclusively female ride-sharing group was launched to help aboriginal women deal with racism and rude behaviour from the city’s taxi drivers. Winnipeg artist Jackie Traverse called for a boycott of all Winnipeg taxis and launched a Facebook-based ride-sharing group for indigenous women after learning of discriminatory behaviour by some cabbies.

The Winnipeg Taxi Alliance is looking at improving aspects of its driver training and its complaints process in addition to other safety-related measures such as posting some kind of identification that would show a driver had underwent training and improved audio/video equipment in vehicles.

Sex segregated transportation has been in place for years in Japan, India, Egypt and Iran with women-only buses, rail and subway cars.

According to the Huffington Post, a recent proposal in Australia to test an all-female train carriage prompted an outcry with calls for male-only cars instead, and critics labelling the plan a temporary remedy to the rise in crimes against women.