Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to save Chicago’s dying taxicab industry sailed through a City Council committee Monday over the strenuous objections of a union representing cabbies.
Meg Lewis, campaign coordinator for Cabdrivers United, a union affiliated with AFSCME Council 31, argued that opening the door for cabdrivers to drive older vehicles — while joining their ride-hailing competitors in charging surge prices, and being screened without fingerprinting — is not the answer to what ails the taxicab industry.
It’s more like closing the barn door after the horses are already out. She noted that “nearly 2,000” taxicab medallions are either in foreclosure or surrendered to the city” and still more are “off the road.”
Lewis accused Emanuel, whose brother is an Uber investor, of “slipping in” provisions that “reduce transparency and safety” for Uber, Lyft and Via.
That was accomplished by “reducing data recording requirements” and the frequency of vehicle inspections while allowing ride-hailing drivers to operate for longer hours on the road, she said.
“Taxi drivers did not ask for and do not want lower standards on training or background checks or the right to price-gouge customers. These provisions are cynical moves to quote-unquote `level the playing field’ by lowering the standards instead of raising them,” Lewis told the City Council’s Budget Committee.
“Drivers need relief,” she said. “They need parity on license fees, on ground taxes and, most urgently, on the number of vehicles that are flooding the market and destroying the ability of both” cabbies and ride-hailing drivers to earn a decent living.
The union hailed as the “most impactful” change Emanuel’s proposal to let cabbies drive their vehicles for 10 years instead of seven.
But she noted that vehicles driven by Uber, Lyft and Via “have no age limit.” Taxis would also continue to pay a $1,000-per-vehicle license fee and $1,440-a-cab in annual ground taxes and accessibility fees while ride-hailing giants “pay nothing” because their fees are passed along to consumers, she said.
Cabdrivers are also subject to city-run debt checks and stripped of their licenses if they owe the city money. Uber, Lyft and Via are allowed to check and deactivate their own drivers. That self-policing has resulted in only 163 ride-hailing deadbeat drivers being deactivated out of 60,000 on the street.
The mayor wants to let cabbies offer pre-arranged fares when provided through an app and incorporate GPS-based taxi meters approved by state and federal agencies. That could pave the way for surge-pricing during periods of high demand.
But Lewis said that, too, is deceiving because city regulations include “barriers” that require an e-hail app to “integrate into in-vehicle hardware and electronic payments to be processed through taxi companies.”
Rosa Escareno, commissioner of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, said the reforms approved Monday by the City Council’s Budget Committee were the product of countless meetings with medallion owners, affiliations and cabdrivers. AFSCME was also “at the table,” she said.
“What we arrived at was, what I thought, was a good balance. While there are some things they didn’t ask for, the fleet owners did. And in other areas, the affiliations asked for it,” Escareno said. “Through this package, through the reforms, we actually address over 90 percent of the requests that they brought to us. . . . Not every side is going to be happy. But I think this strikes a really good balance and we’ve made a lot of progress.”
The commissioner was asked whether the sweeping reforms would be enough to save a taxicab industry fighting for survival in the Uber era or whether the industry is so far behind the technological eight-ball, it just might be too late to save it.
Escareno would say only that she remains “hopeful” that the reforms will “go a long way” toward getting the taxicab industry “where they need to get.”
“They are two distinct industries. They operate differently. There’s customer demand for both sides,” she said. “The goal here is to continue to allow for consumer choice. At the end of the day, it’s really the consumer that decides.”