Chicago cabbies would drive newer, more fuel-efficient vehicles, get the hook more quickly for dangerous driving and spend no more than 12 hours on the road, under sweeping reforms proposed Monday with one glaring exception: a fare increase.
Two months after complaining that Chicago has the nation’s second-lowest taxicab fares and highest fuel prices, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration opted to extend the six-year freeze on fares and leave in place an on-again, off-again fuel surcharge that thoroughly confuses passengers.
Instead of raising fares for the first time since 2005, Emanuel wants to put more money in drivers’ pockets indirectly – by raising lease rates on more fuel-efficient vehicles. The “tiered lease system” is designed to give cab companies a financial incentive to upgrade their fleets and lower fuel costs.
City Hall also plans to cut in half – from 150,000 miles to 75,000 – the maximum number of miles for a new cab put on the street.
But the decision against a fare hike has angered some cabdrivers.
“We need a fare increase after six years,” complained veteran cabdriver George Kasp.
“It’s just not right to put in all types of taxi reforms without compensating drivers with a meter increase,” Kasp said. “Incentives to put out fuel-efficient vehicles are not good enough. The cost of everything has gone up in six years. Even if my average $30-to-$40 gas-up was cut by one-third, what’s that – $10? Come on. It’s a joke. We’ve got to do better than that.”
However, Rosemary Krimbel, commissioner of the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, argued cabdrivers will benefit from the reforms.
“The gasoline savings on the top tier in the lease is $40-a-day – $15 of that will be going to the owners, $25-a-day will be going into the pockets of the taxicab driver. That is $125 a week minimum their pay will be increasing,” Krimbel said.
“We strove to make sure it would be a good standard of living because we would like to see this become a profession. We’d like to see more people get into it. We need cab drivers,” she added.
The sweeping reforms outlined Monday touch virtually every aspect of the taxicab industry, including longstanding complaints about driver safety.
Cabbies now working 13 hours a day for $4.38 an hour would be limited to 12-hour shifts. Companies would be asked to “self-police,” using GPS systems that would become mandatory. Those that don’t would face hefty fines.
The City Colleges of Chicago would revamp its two-week training course for cabbies to include a mandatory behind-the-wheel component.
The city would have “real-time access” to the Illinois Secretary of State’s database of moving violations to get repeat offenders yanked off the road immediately, instead of waiting for an annual review. After three moving violations in a 12-month period, the mandatory chauffeurs’ license would not be renewed.
Cabs would also be required to have mandatory swipe machines for credit cards. And the city would create a new category of licenses for “jitney” cabs to bring regulation and a modicum of safety to an industry that provides a vital service in under-served neighborhoods.
“The passenger and the tourist and the convention-goer will have a new experience in our taxicab fleet,” Emanuel told a news conference in front of a cabstand outside the Merchandise Mart.
“Whether it’s making sure the fleet is more fuel efficient, making sure a passenger can swipe their own credit card, making sure taxicabs have a GPS system so you know where the closest taxi is, as well as the training, the safety – that whole experience needs to be revamped,” the mayor said.
Two months ago, Krimbel declared her desire to get away from fuel surcharges that go off and on with the rise and fall of gas prices, destination and number of passengers – confusing passengers.
“We want to…. build those surcharges right into the flag pull, instead of having it be, ‘This week it’s 50 cents. Next week, it’s $1,’ “ Krimbel had said.
Asked Monday why she changed her mind, she said, “We didn’t want to shake the industry up too much. We want to keep things stable. This is a big reform. It gives us a foundation we can build on. Can we make more changes? Absolutely. But now, we won’t be putting Band-Aids on an old structure. We’ll have a good, solid structure to work from.”
Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee, said he’s neither surprised nor disappointed that Emanuel decided not to raise fares or impose the $1-a-ride taxicab surcharge Burke had proposed last year in order to raise $70 million to shore up the city budget.
“Most cab riders would say that, when the cabdrivers and the industry start to be more responsive to the complaints that continue to flow in, then maybe a fare increase could be considered. But right now, most of the users of the cabs believe they’re not getting good service,” Burke said.
Chicago cab fares have been frozen since an 11.7 percent increase imposed by the City Council in 2005, despite periodic pleas and petition drives by cabbies complaining they are overworked and underpaid.