Safety Move by Didi, Chinese Ride-Hailing App, May Strand Women at Night

Posted June 14, 2018 5:04 p.m. EDT
Updated June 14, 2018 5:09 p.m. EDT

BEIJING — Didi Chuxing, China’s answer to Uber, wanted to make sure its carpooling service was absolutely safe for female passengers.

So when it relaunches the late-night version of the service this week after the shocking killing of a female passenger made headlines across China, it will include a rule designed to protect women: It won’t let male drivers pick up female passengers in the after-hours.

The new measure left many of Didi’s female customers perplexed. As anyone who has ever hitched a ride through Didi can tell you, finding a female driver can be a tall order regardless of the time of day. Must women using Didi Hitch, as the carpooling service is called, wait late into the night until a female driver happens by?

“It’s just not the right solution,” said Chen Xiaoyan, a 22-year-old university student and user of the Didi Hitch service in the city of Guangzhou. “It’s just avoiding responsibility.”

“Are the numbers of female drivers and male drivers working in the night same?” she added. “Would it be convenient for female passengers?”

Didi Chuxing, one of China’s most successful and valuable startups, continues to grapple with the fallout from a crime that raised questions about passenger safety, particularly for female users. But its latest step to restore its reputation has run into a problem: Most Chinese drivers are men.

Of China’s 385 million drivers, nearly three-quarters are men, according to government statistics. For Didi, the numbers are even worse: Only about 10 percent of drivers and car owners using its platform were women.

In some parts of China, a few authorities and landlords have designated bigger parking spots for women, sparking a backlash online and accusations of sexism.

A Didi spokeswoman said the company would monitor the results and adjust them as needed. “Our focus is on ensuring the Hitch service is brought back in a safe and responsible way, and that users understand — and join us as we work through — the challenges involved,” she said in an email.

Didi’s main business is similar to Uber’s ride-hailing service. Didi Hitch, a cheaper alternative, allows regular car users to offer up their spare car seats to passengers heading the same way. Didi’s app allowed drivers and passengers to rate each other.

That function fell under a spotlight after Li Mingzhu, a 21-year-old flight attendant, was found dead after using the service. Authorities believe she was killed by a man using his father’s Didi driver account.

After that, many women who used the service discovered drivers were using the rating service to comment on their appearance. Didi overhauled the app and stopped use of Didi Hitch at night.

On Wednesday, Didi Chuxing said the Didi Hitch service will resume service on Friday between 10 p.m. and midnight and between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. For safety reasons, it said, male drivers can pick up only male passengers during those hours and female drivers can pick up only women. Passengers will be able to share their route with an emergency contact.

The resumption of night service has become a major topic of conversation online in China, with many asking whether the gender restrictions will do anything to make passengers safer.

“This policy is like women-only subway cars,” said Li Di, a 27-year-old male Didi user, citing an initiative tried in Guangzhou to cut down on harassment. “Both just isolate women.”

“It’s just like enclosing sheep with a fence,” he added. “It’s merely curing the symptoms, not the disease.”