Oh, how I used to love the jitney.
I’d hop on it at 39th and King Drive and hop off at 29th for about 15 cents.
I didn’t care if the jitney driver had a criminal past or had just finished off a pint of Wild Irish Rose.
The ride was quick and cheap. I don’t think I even realized I was putting my life at risk.
But today, even in a city where a day doesn’t go by without someone being killed by gun violence, it’s all about safety.
Safety concerns have forced Uber and Lyft to shut down their operations in Austin, Texas, after voters rejected the ridesharing companies’ effort to ditch the city’s fingerprinting requirement.
In Chicago, the ongoing battle between the taxicab industry and the ride-hailing upstarts already had plenty of irony. After all, leading the opposition is Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), the head of the Chicago City Council’s Transportation Committee, who represents a South Side ward where residents are about as likely to catch a cab as they are to catch a trolley.
Now, an ad running on radio stations that target African Americans has raised a thorny topic. The ad, paid for by the Illinois Transportation Trade Association, warns that Uber drivers don’t undergo background checks and advises people to tell their alderman to “vote for Alderman Beale’s ridesharing ordinance and support public safety.”
Beale’s proposed ordinance would require ride-hailing companies to do fingerprint checks.
Brooke Anderson, a spokeswoman for Uber Chicago, says the ad’s claim is false. She says the company conducts background checks but does not use the FBI background checks, in part because they can be “discriminatory.”
“Communities of color are disproportionately impacted because they are arrested at a higher rate,” Anderson says. “Because fingerprint results have a lifetime look-back period, people can be held back from work opportunities for crimes committed long ago.”
In recent years, there have been problems documented with FBI fingerprint checks.
“Although considered the gold standard of criminal background checks, the FBI records routinely fail to report important information on the outcome of arrests,” said a 2013 report by The National Employment Law Project. “These inaccuracies have a devastating impact on workers, especially workers of color who are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system.”
In 2015, U.S. Black Chambers Inc. called fingerprinting “another form of discrimination.”
Anderson says that, contrary to the ad, Uber drivers undergo screening that includes checking criminal records, driving history and the sex-offender registry.
Ridesharing companies also use the latest technology to track trips and riders, including giving riders the ability to share their routes and ETAs with others.
While officials in other cities claim Uber has failed to catch hundreds of drivers with criminal backgrounds, what I see is ridesharing drivers everywhere. These drivers are moving millions of riders around the city every month without major incidents.
So whatever method of background checks the company is using appears to be working.
Before aldermen rush to pass measures that would make it more difficult for people of color to participate in this industry, please consider that there were two good reasons why jitneys were running up and down King Drive packed with passengers:
• Black men couldn’t find jobs.
• Black people couldn’t get taxis.
Those conditions still exist today.
Editor’s note: This column has been updated to reflect that U.S. Black Chambers Inc. and National Black Chamber of Commerce are not affiliated.