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Influential alderman vows to help save a dying taxicab industry

Cab Drivers United and AFSCME Local 2500 gathered outside the Hyatt Hotel last year to protest against UberX and Lyft. | Sun-Times file photo

Taxi passengers who pay with plastic would take a 50-cent-a-ride hit under a small measure of relief advanced Wednesday that could be a prelude to an even bigger rescue.

One day after cab drivers warned aldermen that Chicago’s taxicab industry is “on the verge of collapse,” the chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee vowed to take dramatic steps to alter an “unlevel playing field” further tilted by letting ride-hailing companies make airport pick-ups.

“The taxi industry as it stands right now needs some help and some relief,” said Ald. Anthony Beale (9th). “We need to find that common ground to get them some help and some relief.”

Without more city help, “They may not die. But the industry that you see today may not be what we see tomorrow. When you look at the yards right now, they’re full of cars that are not moving. They don’t have people to drive them. We need to do something to get those cars back on the street.”

To stop the bleeding that has allowed Uber to siphon business away from cabs, some aldermen want to require ride-hailing drivers to get a city chauffeur’s license, just like cabdrivers are required to do.

Others want to cap the number of ride-hailing vehicles on the street at any given time, regulate ride-hailing fares and dramatically alter a 2014 ride-hailing ordinance that allowed Uber and Lyft to average out the hours worked by their entire pool of drivers to escape the most rigid city regulations.

Beale refused to say precisely what he was prepared to do. But he advised reporters to stay tuned for “bigger help.”

Taxicab industry on the ‘verge of collapse,’ aldermen told

In the meantime, the Transportation Committee on Wednesday approved the Beale-proposed 50-cent surcharge for cab fares paid by credit card. Beale called it a “step in the right direction,” but clearly not enough.

Earlier this week, the License Committee stalled Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to appease struggling cab drivers by reducing fines and relaxing licensing requirements.

Cabbies and their union representatives likened it to “shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.” What’s needed, they claimed, is not tinkering around the margins, but a comprehensive rescue plan to save an industry “on the verge of collapse.”

On Wednesday, Emanuel appeared to be unmoved by cabbies’ claims that they have lost half their gross income and 30 percent of their airport pick-ups at a time when 70 percent of medallion loans are in default.

The mayor said he has already done plenty to help cabdrivers fighting for survival in the ride-hailing era.

“A year ago, there wasn’t an app for the taxi industry. They now have one. They asked for years for an increase in the flag [pull cost of entering a cab]. We made that permanent. Things they wanted. We also made sure there was competition at the airport. … I would also note that the proposal being discussed [this week] was a proposal coming from the taxi industry … that is fighting among themselves,” Emanuel said.

Pressed on whether he was prepared to do even more, Emanuel said: “They have to have some agreement among themselves first. [For] those that use the taxi industry or use the ride share, we’re going to make sure there’s high standards. That’s what we’ve done and we’re going to continue to do.”

Last fall, Emanuel gave cabbies a 15-percent fare increase but handed ride-hailing companies the lucrative right to make pickups at O’Hare and Midway airports, McCormick Place and Navy Pier.

Cabdrivers accused the mayor of giving away the store to Uber, the ride-hailing giant whose investors include Hollywood super-agent Ari Emanuel, the mayor’s brother.

Uber and Lyft ultimately came out the big winners after Emanuel forged a compromise to salvage the plan amid City Council opposition.

Instead of making chauffeur’s licenses a condition for making airport pickups, as aldermen had demanded, Emanuel agreed to study the idea and charge the burgeoning industry 2 cents more per ride in the meantime — raising the total fee per-ride fee to 52 cents.

At least some of the money was used to help cabdrivers defray the cost of obtaining a chauffeur’s license.

Ald. John Arena (45th) said then that Emanuel was counting on generating $30 million in fees by giving ride-hailing companies the keys to the airport kingdom. And the mayor was not about to jeopardize that windfall by requiring ride-hailing drivers serving the airports to obtain a chauffeur’s license.

“This was the mayor’s proposal. He baked it into the revenue for the city. And they’re very concerned about making sure they meet those revenue goals,” Arena said then.