At a day long, often boisterous City Council Joint License and Transportation Committee hearing on a plan to increase regulations for drivers of ride-hailing companies to “level the playing field” with the yellow taxi industry, executives of Uber and Lyft threatened that a regulatory crackdown would “end ride-sharing as we know it” in Chicago.
There was no vote, only debate and public testimony, on Transportation ChairmanAnthony Beale’s (9) ordinance requiring Uber and Lyft drivers apply for a public chauffeur’s license, be subject to background checks and fingerprinting, and make 5% of their fleet handicap accessible. Uber and Lyft supporters and yellow cab drivers packed the gallery, often cheering and jeering at testimony. At one point, Chairman Beale threatened to clear the gallery if the disruptions continued.
The meeting was heated, with Uber and Lyft supporters often on the receiving end of fact-checking responses from pro-regulation aldermen, and pro-regulation aldermen receiving taunts from boisterous audience members. Most present agreed on the need for more wheelchair accessible cars, but could not agree on how to work that out. Division of opinions was especially prominent on the issue of requiring fingerprinting for ride-hail drivers.
At one point Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1), one of the few vocal Uber sympathizers on the Council, said, “I have more security when I get out of Uber or Lyft than I do with the taxi cab,” a cab driver in the gallery stood up and yelled, “You lie!” City Hall security had to intervene to get the driver to sit down.
“This is the Jetsons versus the Flintstones,” Moreno continued. “I am all for an even playing field, but why are we taking a very entrepreneurial industry and trying to have them go back to 70’s regulations?”
Both Ald. Moreno and Ald. Joe Moore (49) asked whether easing regulations on the taxi industry was an option–a suggestion also pitched by Uber Chief Advisor David Plouffe. Moreno claimed that the taxi industry was only interested in “killing” Uber, not working with them, citing the new fingerprinting rule. “I’d rather have a discussion about what we can do to lessen the restrictions on taxi cabs…bring them at least into 1990.”
But Moreno seemed to be in the minority. More than half the City Council has signed up to support Ald. Beale’s ordinance for more strict rideshare regulations, and few sounded off in support of deregulating cabs. Ald. John Arena (45) and Chairman Beale suggested Lyft and Uber should conform to new standards or leave Chicago.
“It’s simply ensuring we are doing the best we can to protect consumers,” Arena said, arguing proposed changes were reasonable, and could be completed in a day. “If the industry doesn’t want to meet a very low standard, then go somewhere else where those standards are acceptable.” Arena noted if Uber and Lyft drivers could take a day off to testify, they could do the same to take an expedited one day class to achieve their chauffeur’s license.
And former 17th Ward Ald. Latasha Thomas, now counsel for law firm Reyes Kurson, which represents the taxi lobbying group the Illinois Transportation Trade Association, the taxi lobby, said it didn’t make sense that beauticians jump through more hoops than Uber drivers to get a license. “There’s more risk to getting in someone’s car than doing my nails,” she said.
Joseph Okpaku, Vice President of Government Relations for Lyft, said there is a greater risk of Chicagoans losing citywide transportation access and a chance to make extra money if the regulations were approved. He said there was a “distinct possibility” the company would leave Chicago if their drivers had to spend time and money to conform to the new rules. Part time drivers represent a “critical mass” of the service, he said. Extra barriers to access might dissuade them from signing up in the first place.
“We have never operated in a city with requirements like that,” he said of the proposed chauffeur’s license rule. Both sides frequently mentioned the company’s withdrawal from Austin, Texas, after voters there approved a ballot referendum requiring fingerprinting for drivers a few weeks ago.
Marco McCottry, a General Manager for Uber, agreed, saying Chicago already has some of the strictest regulations on the books. “If this ordinance were to pass, ride-sharing as we know it would no longer exist in Chicago,” he said. Chairman Beale shot back, saying a multi-billion dollar company could eat the cost. He also chastised the representatives and accused them of spreading lies about his ordinance through “scare tactics.”
Uber and Lyft have both actively lobbied riders and drivers online, on the radio, and on TV, encouraging supporters to contact their local alderman to vote against Beale’s ordinance. Uber has claimed changes would nearly double the cost of rides.
Chairman Beale said the hearing was supposed to be about “increasing safety” and creating parity between the two industries, but race, the lack of jobs and transportation to the city’s South and West Sides were brought up frequently.
“The taxi industry had a monopoly in this town and they didn’t have to innovate.” Ald. Moreno said prompting cheers from the gallery. “And now here comes Uber, and Latinos and African-Americans are driving more cars because of Uber and Lyft than ever in the taxicab industry.”
Okpaku and McCottry said their platforms filled a void. 80% of drivers for Lyft drive less than 15 hours a week and most are full time students, retirees or in between jobs, Okpaku said. McCorry testified that Uber has led several recruitment efforts in neighborhoods on the South and West Sides, adding about 11,000 new drivers from those areas to the platform.
Both Okpaku and McCottry said requiring that their drivers get fingerprinted would unfairly impact communities of color where there are higher concentrations of arrests. But two former police officers on the Council, Aldermen Chris Taliaferro (29) and Anthony Napolitano (41) said it’s the only way to get an accurate portrayal of a person’s criminal history.
“One thing I don’t want to do, no matter what, under any circumstance, is compromise safety,” said Ald. Taliaferro. “There was a reason why we did fingerprinting with the police department. Fingerprinting tells us things you don’t want us to know.”
“I’m upset when I hear these arguments about discrimination, against workers, against people of color,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35). He said he was offended that a multi-billion dollar company was pitting workers against each other and trying to evade regulations by claiming their companies help predominately low-income Chicagoans.
By the four hour mark, when it was the public’s time to testify, Ald. Beale employed a buzzer to prevent people from going over a two minute limit. Most of the public testimony came from Uber, Lyft, and cab drivers, with a handful of advocates for more handicapped accessible vehicles.
Ezzedin Abdelmagid, a member of Cab Drivers United, said, “the taxi industry is on the verge of collapse”, echoing previous testimony he made earlier this year at a previous License Committee meeting. “You must create a fair set of rules for all of us.” He said that deregulating the taxi industry was a “terrible” idea.
Parallel to Beale’s ordinance, the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection is working on its own compromise, spurred, in part, by a U.S. District Court decision that said the distinctions between regulations taxis and “transportation network providers” (TNPs) appeared “utterly arbitrary” and that “the requirements for taxis are far more onerous than for TNPs.” The decision allowed taxi interest to pursue equal protection claims against the city.
After the meeting, Chairman Beale said he plans to schedule a vote on his plan ahead of the next City Council meeting. Beale said he might tweak the plan, but “doesn’t scare easy.”