Thursday, March 27, 2014

Are Uber, Lyft the ‘anti-jitneys?’ What is the future of a Chicago taxi?

I’ll be the first to admit to never having used Lyft, Uber or SideCar. And I’d suspect that there are many people who have not only used them, but have never even heard of them!

I've never seen those Lyft mustaches in my neighborhood
Because these transportation services, at least as far as they exist in Chicago, seem to be limited to the north lakefront neighborhoods. Maybe a few other patches of the city and a couple of the inner suburbs that border the city to the north.

THEY’RE FAR FROM being an integral part of the way Chicago-area people get from place to place. There are many times in my life that I need to get to places they just don’t want to go to.

Yet the companies that operate traditional taxicabs seem threatened enough that they will steal prime pockets of business that they now want the General Assembly to crack down with assorted regulations.

Or at least that’s the way the defenders of these services want to view this political fight brewing now in Springfield. These developing services just want to compete with the existing taxi services, only those goons are bringing out their lobbyists and cash to try to crush competition.

Personally, I view it a bit differently.

MORE LIKE THE companies who complain about how environmental regulations are killing their ability to compete on the business side.

Life isn’t as simple-minded as these people wish it could be. Nor should it be.

Now for those of us (a majority, I suspect) who are reading this commentary and wondering, “What’s he babbling about?,” an explanation is probably warranted. With the increased use of smartphones and apps, these services allow people to use them to call for rides.

The people providing those rides aren’t traditional taxi drivers. They’re more like independent contractors who provide their own vehicles. The fare structure, as I understand it, varies. Certain rides in more prominent areas of Chicago will cost more. There is none of the licensing that the traditional taxi companies have to engage in with Chicago in order to operate cabs.

WHICH IS WHAT supposedly makes them potentially more profitable than the traditional taxi companies – they have next to no overhead in terms of maintaining a fleet of vehicles.

But the reason that city officials developed so many of those regulations and licensing requirements for taxicabs is out of a sense of security. It is what ensures that there’s a chance that the taxi drivers operating the cabs are actually safe – even though some of us persist in making jokes about Pakistani taxi drivers and their wild ways!

Now I know there are those who use these new services (because the places they want to go fall within their range of the world they want to cover) who say they’re as safe, and in some cases safer and cleaner, than a traditional taxi cab.

But one has to have a lot of faith in these newcomers to trust that each and every ride is going to be the same. I wouldn’t know. They don’t come out very often to the land where places like Hyde Park and Bridgeport are “up north” and the North Side at times feels like a foreign land.

I ALSO FIND it amusing to learn that some people try to compare these services – which seem like they’re geared toward people who like to play with their smartphones and probably wish they could figure out a way to get their laundry done by phone rather than having to do it themselves – with the jitney cabs that for decades have operated in the predominantly African-American neighborhoods that the cab companies themselves try to ignore.

Those drivers weren’t licensed by the city – although they were subject to crackdowns from officials whenever someone political felt the need to get themselves law-and-order-related publicity. I'm sure somebody is going to want to believe it's the same sensibility at work here. But it's not!

Would Lyft riders have looked twice at a jitney?
The jitneys, in spirit and reality, are so far removed from these new transportation services. A part of me wonders if comparison is ridiculous, if not borderline offensive.

It seems these services want to get into the transportation business, but don’t want to go along with the rules. Which makes them come across like those people who argue that minimum-wage laws are unfair because they cut into the profit margins the business owners think they’re entitled to.


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