Ride-sharing companies fight back

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Ride-sharing companies in the crosshairs of the taxicab industry and its political allies in Chicago and Springfield fired back Thursday.

One month after being skewered at a City Council hearing, representatives of UberX, Lyft and SideCar, their drivers and riders had the City Hall stage largely to themselves — and used it to refute the charges made against them.

They maintained that they do provide insurance. They do conduct extensive criminal background checks on their drivers — and, in the case of Lyft, reject 94 percent of applicants. And they do not cherry-pick the Loop, the Near North Side, Lincoln Park and Hyde Park.

“Four out of every ten Uber-facilitated trips serves a neighborhood designated by the city as an underserved community,” said Corey Owens, head of global public policy at Uber Technologies.

He added, “Ride-sharing in Chicago has thrived, only because the demand for new transportation is simply overwhelming, reflecting the dissatisfaction with options that existed before. . . . Consumer service, driver opportunity, competition and choice. These are things that have been missing.”

Uber driver James Evans argued that passengers ride with him because they “want to get away from the taxicab experience” where drivers are constantly talking on cell phones and claiming the credit card machine doesn’t work.

Candice Taylor, manager of government relations at Lyft, said the allegation that ride-sharing companies engage in price-gouging is also a misnomer.

She acknowledged that Lyft imposes a “prime-time tipping” fee of “up to 200 percent, but no more” during periods of high demand. But, the company also offers incentives during periods of low demand.

“During happy hour, the rate that’s normally charged is significantly reduced —up to 50 percent,” she said.

Elizabeth Stevens, legal counsel for SideCar, said her company is a “marketplace” that allows drivers to “set their own price” and lets a passenger sort them, based on price, estimated time of arrival or passenger ratings.

“This makes it a true marketplace and puts control into the driver and passengers’ hands, so they can choose what kind of ride they want to have,” Stevens said.

“If you’re a female and you’re leaving late at night and you want to ride with another female, you can choose that. If you have five parties and you need a larger car, you can choose that.”

Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th), who has demanded that the city shut down ride-sharing companies now siphoning business from taxicabs, was not convinced.

He questioned Stevens, Perry-Mason-style, to elicit the information he already knew: that, unlike taxicabs, ride-sharing companies hold no city medallions and do not pay the city’s airport departure tax or ground transportation tax.

When the hearing ended, License Committee Chairman Emma Mitts (37th) was asked what she had learned.

“There’s a lot of ride-share drivers out here and a lot of folks are employed out here. And there’s an issue for my taxicab industry that there’s not a level playing field with the ride-share,” she said.

Mitts said she anticipates bolstering the insurance requirements of the ride-sharing ordinance introduced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

She also suggested that one way to provide the “relief” that cabdrivers seek is to raise taxicab fares for the first time in eight years.

“That would be a good thing to do,” she said.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) agreed that the City Council needs to “strike the right balance so we don’t completely cannibalize another industry” to encourage innovation. One way to do that, he said, is to provide “relief for drivers working very hard.”

Earlier this week, an Illinois House committee agreed to fill a regulatory vacuum that has allowed ride-sharing companies to siphon business from taxicabs and drive down the value of taxicab medallions. Like cabbies, ride-sharing drivers would need chauffeurs licenses. Their hours would be limited. They would be required to serve passengers with disabilities. And the legislation would prohibit price-gouging.

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