Laura Washington: Uber taps into city’s South, West sides

SHARE Laura Washington: Uber taps into city’s South, West sides

File photo by Adam Berry, Getty Images.

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Before he was president, he was hailing while black.

“Barack Obama was a black man that lived on the South Side of Chicago, who had his share of troubles catching cabs,” First Lady Michelle Obama said last December in a People magazine interview.

Obama doesn’t have to worry about that anymore.

Thanks to the ride-hailing revolution, neither do we.


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“The South Side is one of my favorite examples of Uber in the whole world,” David Plouffe tells me.

“You are on the South Side, here. You press your phone, and the car comes in three minutes. The same as if you’re on the lakefront. Think about that. That’s a really powerful thing.”

Plouffe knows power. He was Obama’s 2008 campaign manager and the president’s senior adviser in the White House. He is now chief adviser and a board member at Uber, the international disrupter that is leading the sharing economy.

Plouffe was in Chicago recently and was preaching to my choir over breakfast at a Near North Side cafe.

There’s been a hullabaloo over Uber’s competition with the taxi industry, regulation issues, and the fact that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s brother is a major investor.

I am in the Uber Halleluiah Chorus. I have endured a lifetime of rude, incompetent and elusive taxi drivers.

My Uber app brings me a prompt ride, anywhere, anytime.

A survey Uber commissioned earlier this year found that 66 percent of African-American Chicago residents believe that taxi cabs “deliberately refuse to pick up blacks.” Four of every 10 blacks surveyed said they shun the city’s taxi services.

Today, Uber reports, 54 percent of UberX trips in Chicago “begin or end in an area deemed as underserved” by taxis and public transportation.

No more hailing while black on Obama’s South Side.

Working while black is another thing.

In June, Uber announced a push to recruit 10,000 new drivers from the city’s South and West sides.

Today, more than 5,000 are already on the street, according to the company. Those new drivers have earned more than $3 million through Uber.

It’s an economic lift. There are no barriers. Sign up and drive. You don’t need a GED. You don’t need a work history. It lifts a lean paycheck. It’s a bridge for the jobless.

There are 35,000 active Uber drivers in the Chicago area, and 56 percent drive less than 10 hours, Plouffe said.

“Uber is a great way for people who have had a lot of trouble economically to get some stability,” Plouffe declared over a kale-and-spinach omelet. “But we are also a great way for people who have had trouble establishing a work history to do so. And we are very proud of that.”

In 2012, 24 percent of Chatham residents over 16 were unemployed, according to the U.S. Census. Uber reports that 1,389 Chatham residents are now driving for Uber. Pullman, with a 22.8 percent unemployment rate, has more than 1,314 drivers on the street. Englewood, 978 drivers; West Garfield Park, 688.

Has Plouffe talked with his old boss about his new job?

“I learned long ago not to reveal my private conversations with the president.” But, “I do know that it is something he is very interested in and studies very carefully.”

Countless great minds, including our president, have wrestled with the gnarly problems of chronic unemployment, underemployment and wage stagnation.

Uber, and the sharing economy, is one answer.


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