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Take cabs while you can or soon there won’t be cabs to take

Uber or American Taxi? That depends on how quickly you want dystopia upon us.

Part of your fare paid to Uber to take you home from O’Hare has to subsidize the company’s expansion, like this Uber Eats driver seen in Santiago, Chile in April.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Our flight to Chicago was delayed. So my brother and I retired to a wine bar next to the gate at the Denver airport and ordered the cheese plate. Conversation shifted to arrival home.

”Are you cabbing it or Ubering it?” he asked.

”Neither,” I said, delighted at the spontaneous riddle I had handed him.

My brother chewed on this koan.

”Ohhh,” he said, realization dawning. I don’t believe he actually said, “Lucky man!” and socked me admiringly on the shoulder, but rather made some kind of appreciative sound I interpreted that way.

My wife was picking me up. In this frenetic era of Snapchat and Lyft, we still cling to the tradition that you personally collect loved ones arriving at an airport. To not do so is a snub. If my wife were flying home and I told her to take a taxi I might as well make up my bed in the garage.

This is habit, not law. As the flight delay stretched into evening and the weather soured, she messaged me, asking: do you mind getting home yourself? I did not, understanding her reluctance to be an after-effect of when I came home from South America. She had braved a mid-April blizzard to pick me up at Midway, an experience so harrowing we skipped the ritual glomming of a dozen donuts at Huck Finn’s and simply bolted home.

Uber or cab?

I’ve never taken an Uber from O’Hare, for the unheroic reason that I am a creature of habit. Uber is for summoning cabs where there are no cabs. At O’Hare, there are lots of taxis, and on days when your wife can’t come get you, you phone American Taxi and they tell you to meet one at Gate 3G.

But my brother, a seasoned traveler, knows the mystical place where Ubers are found. I could, I realized, go with him and nudge myself further into the bright shiny future.

“Let’s see how they compare, price-wise,” I said. I assumed Uber would be significantly cheaper. With investors pouring in billions of dollars, they undercut local taxi company fares and build market share, while ruining the lives of taxi drivers who played by the rules and mortgaged their lives to buy near-worthless taxi medallions.

The Uber app told me a trip to Northbrook would be $35.17, unless I wanted to use a “pool” car: a shared vehicle, which made me think of brightly painted tap-taps with 14 people jammed in the back, slowly wending through the smokey streets of Port-au-Prince.

No pool cars.

American Taxi is $31 from O’Hare to Northbrook.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi talking at a table.
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi before the editorial board at the Sun-Times in August, 2018.
Neil Steinberg/Chicago Sun-Times

I may be the only person on earth to have met both Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and American Taxi co-owner John Coyne, and within the past year too. Khosrowshahi when he stopped by the newspaper on his global charm offensive, trying to counterbalance the image of Uber as a rolling sweatshop whose drivers are gulled into working for minimum wage. And Coyne after I wrote about failing to snag an American Taxi on a busy Saturday night at O’Hare, his company’s computerized phone system saying, in essence, “We’re busy; get yourself home.”

I met the former because I wanted to clap eyes on a man who earns $150 million a year; the latter, because Coyne took me to lunch to both apologize and pick my brains about how American Taxi could improve.

What to do? Go with the San Francisco-based behemoth? Or the Mount Prospect-based underdog, founded in Northbrook in 1975?

Uber takes 25 percent of its drivers’ fares.

American Taxi takes less than 8 percent. It can share more income with its drivers because American Taxi isn’t paying its CEO $150 million a year, nor expanding into Rwanda.

Reader, I went with American Taxi. I don’t want to be a Luddite. I have no doubt that 10 years from now, I’ll arrive at O’Hare in a mega-plane packed with self-contained cubes, like mini-shipping containers. That our personal travel cubes will be unloaded like luggage and transferred by robots onto conveyers and into autonomous Ubers, one of which will spirit me to what’s left of my home, with no fuss other than reducing my net assets by $200.

Who wouldn’t want to postpone the arrival of that grim future by even one day?