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Council OKs cab, ride-hail reform despite $9M Uber fine in Colorado

an exterior view of the headquarters of Uber

The City of Chicago and Cook County filed a joint lawsuit against Uber on Monday, alleging the embattled ride-hailing company violated several parts of the Chicago Municipal Code and state law. | File photo

The state of Colorado accused Uber this week of placing passengers in “extreme jeopardy” — and slapped the ride-hailing giant with a nearly $9 million fine — for allowing 57 people with past criminal or motor vehicle offenses to drive for the ride-hailing company.

Why, then, did the City Council agree Tuesday to let new cabdrivers, along with drivers for Uber, Lyft and Via escape fingerprinting and let the ride-hailing industry run the names of their own drivers through national and global databases to make sure they don’t have criminal records, show up on sex offender registries or appear on a list of suspected terrorists?

That’s the question that hung over Tuesday’s vote on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s’ plan to reshape Chicago’s dying taxicab industry in the image of its ride-hailing competitors.

But the elephant in the room was never addressed on the City Council floor. Aldermen approved the changes – included in a catch-all management ordinance tied to the mayor’s 2018 budget — without ever discussing the security cloud that hangs over Uber.

Emanuel, whose brother is an Uber investor, denied that, he was compromising public safety by allowing ride-hailing drivers to escape fingerprinting and dropping it altogether for new cabdrivers.

“There’s upcoming and new technologies as it relates to facial recognition and other efforts that will allow us to make sure that everybody has safety associated with their rides and knowing that there’s oversight in those efforts,” the mayor said.

“I don’t want to comment on a [Colorado] case I don’t know anything about. What I can tell you is There’s upcoming new technology that will ensure the safety of the rides and we’re gonna be embracing that new technology.”

Lilia Chacon, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, noted that the more rigid background checks imposed Tuesday will be backstopped by City Hall.

“BACP will enforce quarterly background spot checks on 10% of rideshare drivers if public safety warrants it and require rideshare companies to implement technology enhancements, such as in-app driver verification,” Chacon wrote in an email.

The department also plans to “develop a portal to communicate all driver deactivations for serious cause in real-time to all rideshare companies.”

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, was incredulous that the Colorado fine was not enough to resurrect his long-stalled plan to fingerprint drivers from Uber, Lyft and Via, just as cabdrivers have been fingerprinted for years.

“How many eye-openers do we have to have before we understand that public safety is exposed?” Beale said Tuesday.

David Kriesman, a spokesman for Cabdrivers United, a union affiliated with AFSCME Council 31, agreed that “fingerprint background checks” are the “most accurate method to ensure someone is who they say they are.”

 

The city wants Lyft to replace its background checker, review all 27,000 of its drivers and conduct random audits with results shared with the city after acknowledging that one of its drivers had a federal conviction for aiding terrorism. | AP file photo

Uber had no immediate comment. The company, has blamed a “process error inconsistent with Colorado’s driving regulations” and said the company has corrected the mistake.

The plan approved Tuesday would lift regulations on both ride-sharing and taxis in hopes of breathing new life into a taxicab industry fighting for survival in the Uber era.

The sweeping reforms would open the door for cabdrivers to drive older vehicles while joining Uber, Lyft and Via in offering pre-arranged fares and charging surge prices during period of high demand. But, only when provided through an app and incorporate GPS-based taxi meters approved by state and federal agencies.

Meg Lewis, campaign coordinator for Cabdrivers United, has accused Emanuel of “slipping in” provisions that “reduce transparency and safety” for Uber, Lyft and Via.

That was accomplished by “reducing data recording requirements” and the frequency of vehicle inspections while allowing ride-hailing drivers to operate for longer hours on the road, she said.

“Taxi drivers did not ask for and do not want lower standards on training or background checks or the right to price-gouge customers. These provisions are cynical moves to quote-unquote ‘level the playing field’ by lowering the standards instead of raising them,” Lewis told the City Council’s Budget Committee last week.

The union has hailed as the “most impactful” change Emanuel’s proposal to let cabbies drive their vehicles for 10 years instead of seven. But Lewis has noted that ride-hailing vehicles “have no age limit.”

Taxis would also continue to pay a $1,000-per-vehicle license fee and $1,440-a-cab in annual ground taxes and accessibility fees while ride-hailing giants “pay nothing” because their fees are passed along to consumers, she said.