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Uber willing to help resolve Chicago congestion, but only to a point, CEO says

There are ‘only 1,400 Ubers on the road’ in Chicago during a typical morning rush, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi argued Monday. Still, he said, he’s open to “comprehensive congestion reform.’

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi (center) joins Mayor Lori Lightfoot (left) and Lior Ron (right) head of Uber Freight, at Monday’s news conference at the Old Main Post Office.
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi (center) joins Mayor Lori Lightfoot (left) and Lior Ron (right) head of Uber Freight, at Monday’s news conference at the Old Main Post Office.
Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times

Uber is willing to do its part to help reduce congestion on Chicago streets, but the ride-hailing giant is not the main culprit, CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said Monday.

The Uber CEO was asked what form a Chicago congestion fee should take after joining Mayor Lori Lightfoot at the Old Main Post Office to announce plans to hire 2,000 employees to staff the new headquarters of Uber Freight.

Khosrowshahi responded, essentially: “Don’t blame us.” During a typical morning rush, there are “only 1,400 Ubers on the road” in Chicago, he said; that’s “around three percent of miles driven,” he said.

“That said, we do think that comprehensive congestion reform that is able to create the right set of incentives in the right areas and at the right times is something that we are open to,” he said.

“We are looking forward to working with the mayor’s office to come up with a solution that’s not targeting one small part of congestion but really the whole ecosystem. And we’ll be a part of that.”

Lightfoot was asked to explain what she meant in her state of the city address, when she talked about “exploring revenue options to address rampant congestion…while simultaneously bringing in a fair source of funding.”

Chicago now imposes a 72-cent flat fee on each ride booked on Uber, Lyft and Via.

“In the short term, we’ll be making some … modest recommendations that address some obvious issues,” Lightfoot said.

“Part of what you’ll see when we roll out our package is that we’re going to do a comprehensive study of what is happening with congestion here in Chicago and what are the drivers of it. I don’t think we have enough data yet to be able to make a comprehensive plan.”

Lightfoot said she read with interest a Sun-Times story about the debate among transportation experts about what a congestion fee should look like in Chicago.

Some say Chicago should follow the trail blazed by Singapore, London and Stockholm by drawing a ring around the downtown area and slapping a hefty fee on every vehicle that crosses into that zone.

Others want Chicago’s version of congestion pricing to be done on a “dynamic, variable fee basis” that takes into account the type of vehicle, location, time of day, number of passengers and their ability to pay.

“I don’t think we have enough data yet to be able to make a comprehensive plan. I saw your article. You’re way ahead of where we are,” the mayor told a Sun-Times reporter.

“Trucks need to be able to move through the city. People need to be able to access various modes of transportation easily. That’s the ultimate objective. Obviously, we’re concerned about the wear and tear on our infrastructure. We’re concerned about air pollution. But those are things that we’ll be looking at in a comprehensive way.”

Lightfoot’s decision to soft-pedal Uber’s role in Chicago’s congestion headache is understandable considering the $200 million-a-year impact of the company’s move to the Old Main Post Office.

But it runs contrary to her longstanding complaints about the impact of ride-hailing on Chicago’s traffic woes.

She campaigned on a promise to abolish the city sticker and replace the $128 million in annual revenue with dramatically higher fees on ride-hailing vehicles. She talked about imposing strict limits on the number of ride-hailing vehicles.

“There’s no rush hour anymore. It’s perpetual. … We have tens of thousands of new cars on the roads … because of ride-share. They’re … [driven by] people who don’t even live in Chicago,” Lightfoot told the Sun-Times in late February.

“You have to more closely regulate how many cars can be on the road. And frankly for people from outside Chicago and outside Illinois, you’ve got to look at some of the things New York is doing about requiring a license in Illinois at a minimum. And then, we’ve got to levy much higher fees against ride-share.”

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose brother is an Uber investor, has long been accused of tilting the regulatory playing field in a way that allowed the ride-hailing giant to decimate the taxicab industry.

The courts have rejected that assertion, but Lightfoot didn’t.

“The imbalance between what the taxis have to go through, the regulatory hoops they have to jump through as compared to ride-share, [is] not even in the same universe of fairness,” she said.

“When you regulate it more aggressively, you’re gonna see fewer cars on the road.”