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Uber establishes beachhead at Navy Pier; are airports next?

A ride-hailing giant whose investors include Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s brother is setting up dedicated pick-up zones at Navy Pier in what Uber hopes will pave the way for a similar entrée into O’Hare and Midway Airports.

The three dedicated pick-up and drop-off zones are located on the north side of the pier at the IMAX Theater; the funhouse; and the Grand Ballroom at the far end.

In addition, the Uber app has a “Venues” feature, so passengers can connect with drivers and pinpoint their preferred pick-up location at the pier.

The pick-up and drop-off locations give Uber a foothold into Chicago’s most popular tourist attraction at no additional cost to the ride-hailing giant that has siphoned business away from taxicabs.

But Navy Pier spokesman Nick Shields said that wasn’t the point at all. It was about easing traffic flow and better serving Navy Pier’s 8.5 million annual visitors.

“This is about logistics. … We have more people than ever using Uber. Drivers were stopping wherever the guests wanted them to stop, anywhere along the Pier,” Shields said.

“This is truly about elevating the guest experience. We needed signage to organize and make sure people knew exactly where those Uber drop-offs and pick-ups on the Pier would be rather than passengers determining their own locations. It’s a traffic-flow management issue as well as a public safety issue. Cabs have a ring along the front of the Pier. … There is no difference.”

Peter Enger, secretary-treasurer of the United Taxidrivers Community Council, said he has no problem with the designated pick-up and drop-off locations, so long as Uber is “not staging” on Navy Pier.

But, he pleaded with the City Council to slap a ceiling on the number of Uber drivers who can be on the street at any given time “if they want to maintain a viable taxicab industry.”

“I tried to join the taxi line at Riot Fest, but there were three whole blocks of Uber cars. I couldn’t even get close to the taxi line,” Enger said.

“Two of my oldest and smartest cabdriver friends have decided to join the other team. If they’re only going to make 60 percent of what they used to make, they figure why bother struggling to make the lease payment and swallow all of the other overhead? Why not buy a ten-year-old car and make the same 60 percent?”

Earlier this year, Emanuel stepped in for the second time in a year to block Uber from moving in on cabdrivers’ turf at O’Hare and Midway Airports.

It happened after Uber started an online petition to persuade City Hall to let Uber drivers make airport pick-ups.

The mayor appeared to set the stage for such a groundbreaking change when he mentioned that allowing Uber to service O’Hare and Midway was one of the many suggestions to emerge from his three town hall meetings on the city budget.

Late last week, two of the City Council’s most powerful aldermen moved to level the playing field between ride-hailing and taxicabs by slapping an escalating surcharge on surge-pricing during periods of bad weather and peak demand.

Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th) said his goal is to level the playing field with struggling cabdrivers whose fares are regulated by the city and are prohibited from charging more when demand is high.

Enger doesn’t like that idea one bit.

“The last thing I want to see is a surcharge on the surge charge,” Enger said. “I’d like to see surge pricing go away. That would get rid of 80 percent of these [Uber] guys. If the city has a stake in the revenue from surge pricing, we’ll never see an end to it.”