Safr, a ride-hailing startup that will dispatch women drivers to exclusively serve female customers, is organizing private tests in Boston and plans to launch publicly this spring, despite questions about whether its business model is legal.
Boston-based Safr announced plans for its service last year under the name Chariot for Women, saying that excluding men could help address incidents involving male drivers for other ride-hailing services, or people posing as drivers who attack female passengers.
But legal experts said state and federal anti-discrimination laws make it illegal for Safr to refuse male passengers.
“Ideas that sound great — and this does sound great — have to meet the tests that are set forth in the law,” said Joseph L. Sulman, a civil rights lawyer in Newton. “If you replace the word ‘women’ with ‘white’ or ‘black,’ it reads very differently.”
Safr said it was deluged with interest from potential customers after announcing its plans last spring, but is only now rolling out an invitation-only trial in the Boston, with plans to open it to the public in March.
The company’s founder, former Uber driver Michael Pelletz, has handed off management of the startup to a new team of executives.
Joanna Humphrey Flynn, Safr’s head of marketing, said the company is mindful of the discrimination concerns and is working with its legal advisers “to make sure that we are in compliance with the laws.”
Safr is considering some product features, including the possibility of referring male riders to other ride-hailing companies, as possible ways to address the discrimination question, she said. But those ideas are still in development and haven’t been finalized, Flynn said.
“We are trying to see if that’s something we can fit into our model,” she said. “But at the crux of our model is an absolute foundation that we want women to feel safe, and feel empowered.”
Safety of women, both drivers and riders, has been a contentious topic as ride-hailing services have become more popular around the United States.
Last year, Uber settled a lawsuit filed by two women who accused the company of neglect and fraud after they were allegedly sexually assaulted by drivers. One of those cases involved Boston Uber driver Abderrahim Dakiri, who was convicted of assault in early 2016. Uber severed ties with Dakiri after he was arrested.
Safety concerns prompted Massachusetts lawmakers to approve legislation last year establishing a regulatory system for ride-hailing companies, including state criminal background checks for drivers. The law also requires companies to “comply with all applicable laws regarding nondiscrimination against riders or potential riders.”
Questions about Safr’s legality under discrimination laws probably won’t prompt government regulators to shut down the app before it gets rolling, Sulman said, but the company would be vulnerable to lawsuits by male customers who were are refused service based on their gender.
“It probably will happen. I’m not afraid of doing that, frankly,” Sulman said. “It really does set a bad precedent for a company to think they can do this.”
Safr isn’t the first startup to pitch a women-only service in an attempt to compete with much larger transportation providers such as Uber and Lyft. But there have been few examples of such a service actually gaining traction in the market, in part because of the legal concerns.
A New York startup known as SheTaxis or SheRides attempted to launch a similar service in 2014, but faced similar questions. The city’s human rights commissioner reminded car-hailing companies that it was illegal to refuse to pick up passengers based on gender, and SheTaxis today is unavailable in the Apple app store.
SheTaxis’ founders could not immediately be reached for comment, and a lawyer who previously worked with the company, Andrew G. Celli, said Thursday that he was unsure of its status.
Another similar service, See Jane Go, debuted in September in Orange County and Long Beach in California. The startup wouldn’t disclose performance numbers, but the response so far has “exceeded our expectations,” chief executive William Jordan said Thursday.
Jordan said See Jane Go hasn’t faced any legal threats for tailoring its service to women, and believes it would have a good answer if challenged. Men can ride in one of See Jane Go’s cars if accompanied by a woman, and any man who requests a ride without female accompaniment is simply passed off to Uber or Lyft, Jordan said.
“We’re not saying we don’t like guys, as a company,” Jordan said. “Guys are fine; we just don’t think a woman should be alone in a car with a strange guy.”
If it does begin offering a transportation app, Safr would also be subject to Massachusetts’ new regulations on ride-hailing services, formally known as transportation network companies.
The state is currently devising detailed rules that will fully implement the law’s licensing requirements and in the meantime has signed voluntary memorandums with Uber, Lyft, and other companies.
State officials said Safr is not currently in discussions with regulators about a similar agreement.Curt Woodward can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @curtwoodward.