By J. Coyden Palmer
The chair of the city council’s Transportation Committee was plowed over repeatedly by two executives and community supporters of the ride-sharing programs Lyft and Uber on May 25 at a city council committee hearing on whether stricter regulations are needed for the company’s drivers, who are independent contractors. Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) was flustered and more than once lost his cool after responses to his questions were thwarted and handled with ease by Marco McCottry of Uber and Joseph Okpaku, Vice President of Government Relations at Lyft. Their responses were greeted with loud applause by people in the gallery, most of whom were either drivers or passengers, who use the alternative transportation services that are cutting into the taxi industry’s profits. Beale is proposing an ordinance that will make all ride-sharing service drivers submit to fingerprinting as part of an enhanced background check and pay a $115 fee for a one-day training program that will ironically teach them how to drive.
But Okpaku and McCottry said placing a fee on their drivers would upset their business models, make it impossible for many drivers to start, thus creating a void in transportation options for the most vulnerable city’s residents. Blacks on the South and West sides use the services because cab companies have historically ignored the areas and with jobs hard to find, many say it is how they put food on their tables.
“Since we have come into the Chicago market, we have successfully reduced the wait time for customers needed transportation to an average of two to four minutes on the South and West Sides,” said Uber Chicago General Manager Marco McCottry. “Last year we set out to recruit 10,000 new drivers on the South and West Sides over a one year period. We surpassed our goal recruiting 11,000 new drivers in just nine-months.”
When asked by Beale if the ordinance is passed will Uber leave Chicago, McCottry responded by saying:
“If this ordinance were to pass Uber as you currently know it would no longer exist in Chicago,” McCottry said.
Okpaku was blunter. He said Lyft left Houston because of an ordinance that was less restrictive than the one Chicago is proposing. He said the company made a business decision to leave Houston after three months because it was no longer conducive to their business model and Chicago could find itself out of the loop as well.
“It’s a distinct possibility we would leave. Recent history has shown there is a very decent chance that could happen. We have never operated in a city that has requirements like this. It’s as simple as that,” Okpaku said.
Beale said he does not want to put either company out of Chicago or stop the ride-sharing drivers from making money, but said he has “safety concerns.” That argument is seen as hogwash though by the majority of African Americans, even those who live in Beale’s own ward who say getting a cab is nearly impossible.
“I ride a lot of cabs in cities around the country and the drivers are all in the same situation, which is the real threat to public safety,” said former Chicago resident Nykia Fite, who was a passenger in a cab in Detroit when it collided with another vehicle crushing her right leg and hip. “The thing the councilmen are not seeing is when you put these massive stipulations on people to make a living, be it cab drivers or Uber drivers, it falls back on me. This cab driver who has to drive 12 to 15 hours a day to pay all of these ridiculous fees…I had to pay the price when he was too tired to drive and got me injured. With an Uber driver, of which my sister is, they can work as little or as much as they want and they are not paying the cab company a leasing fee so they are keeping most of the money for themselves. If something happens to me in an Uber vehicle they are going to take care of me, not so for a cab company.”
Former Chicago resident Spencer Hopkins now living in Austin, Texas, another city Uber left because of restrictions, said he waited 90 minutes for a cab earlier this week in Austin. A Crusader source who was supposed to testify on behalf of Uber at the hearing, but could not because of scheduling conflict, told this newspaper Uber is set to leave Chicago should the ordinance pass just as it did in Houston.
“That means over 60 local community residents will be without income and the Bronzeville Community which is Uber’s largest ridership base will be without services again,” the source confirmed.
Rev. Leon Finney also testified at the hearing and said he was “disappointed” that the council could not find a way so both entities could coexist. Finney is against fingerprinting, saying it would hurt many African American men, who may have been arrested for a crime but never convicted. He explained that because the fingerprinting cannot be expunged from a person’s record, and Black people are more likely to have an arrest record, it hurts the community that needs the jobs the most.
“I’m here somewhat mystified of how we got to a place like this,” Finney began his testimony during the three-hour hearing. “I remember when the Jitney cabs were operating on King Drive and the resistance that came from the taxi cab industry. Those drivers were driven out of Chicago, and almost to a man or woman they were African Americans operating on the South Side. We are suffering from a joblessness rate in the Black community that is beyond any I have ever seen. We have to do something about that, by creating and maintaining jobs.”
Finney added that since the fingerprinting aspect of the ordinance was a main sticking point on contention, it perhaps should be removed for both cab drivers and ride-sharing drivers.
But Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), a former police officer, said fingerprinting is important because it is more conclusive than a regular background check. He said with fingerprinting, you do not have to worry about people using a false name or doing other things to hide their past.
“Until you do fingerprinting background checks, you are not really doing a background check,” he said.
No data was produced by Beale or anyone else in support of the ordinance on crime or complaint statistics against ride-sharing drivers at the hearing. That was a problem for Alderman Joe Moore (49th), who said the proposed ordinance is a solution in search of a problem that does not exist.
“I think if we’re going to pass legislation, it should be done so based off of facts not supposition and passion,” Moore said. “That said; I would like to see it produced the complaints against taxi cab drivers in that past three years, which affect public safety. With all of the regulations that we have in place for cab drivers, I know for sure there are instances when cab drivers are accused of and been convicted of dangerous acts that are harmful to the public. I want to see how that compares to the ride-sharing industry to see if we really do have a problem. Because frankly I don’t have a lot of phone calls in my office from people saying they were harassed or threatened by ride-sharing drivers. So do we really have a problem that we need to enact more regulations that may push out an industry from our city that will deprive our constituents of services that they obviously want because they are using them and making a profit?”
According to Uber, 92 percent of the rides serviced on the South and West Sides came from ride-sharing services, not taxi cabs. Half of Uber’s drivers live in those same parts of the city.