Chicago ride-hail and taxi drivers unite over regulation

Taxi driver waits on Michigan Avenue (Kari McMahon/Medill)
Taxi driver waits on Michigan Avenue (Kari McMahon/Medill)

By Kari McMahon
Medill Reports

Out-of-state drivers for ride-hail services such as Uber and Lyft could be banned from driving in Chicago if 32nd Ward Ald. Scott Waguespack’s proposal is passed in city hall.

Waguespack’s proposal would amend the Transportation Network Provider ordinance, a Chicago law that was passed in September 2014, which provides a regulatory framework for the ride-hail services. The ordinance contains requirements such as taking an online course to attain a special chauffeur license to drive for a ride-hail service, meeting the city’s vehicle inspection standards and displaying a 311 sign inside the ride-hail vehicle so passengers know they can call the city with any issues.

If the city council passes the amendment, ride-hail drivers would need a valid Illinois license plate and vehicle registration to drive for ride-hail services. Those applying to become a ride-hail driver would need to have owned a valid Illinois driver’s license for at least a year.

Waguespack, who represents neighborhoods in north Chicago, has introduced the legislation in city council but is still waiting for a public hearing. In December 2019, there were around 60,000 active ride-hail drivers in the city. Out-of-state drivers put additional pressures on the increasing number of drivers.

Meg Lewis, who is associated with the taxi driver union Cab Drivers United, said taxi drivers faced challenges with out-of-state drivers at key periods of times, such as on weekends when they will travel to Chicago to make extra money. Lewis works with Cab Drivers United through her role as special projects director at AFSCME Council 31, the Illinois chapter of the largest trade union in the U.S.

Ride-hail drivers, who are also facing challenges with the over-supply of drivers, agreed with taxi drivers over ride-hail regulation even though they had butted heads in the past.

“I think drivers have realized that they’re more powerful if they work it together and approach policymakers in a unified way, than blaming one another for the problems that they’re facing,” Lewis said.

Mark Smithivas, a part-time Uber driver and organizer at Gig Workers Matter, a nonprofit organization in Chicago supporting workers without contracts, also said the organization supported the amendment.

“You’ll often see drivers who have Indiana, Wisconsin and even plates from as far as Florida,” Smithivas said, adding that the law was “common sense.”

But some drivers were skeptical that the amendment would solve the fundamental problem that there were too many ride-hail drivers in the city in general. They said more comprehensive regulation was needed to enable an increase in pay, enforce comprehensive background checks and regulate the number of drivers on the road.

Jayson Franklin, a middle school teacher and part-time Uber driver, is an advocate for more comprehensive legislation. He believes there should be a cap on the number of drivers.

“If you’re a driver and you can be replaced at the drop of a hat, you have no value,” said Franklin, describing the problems with having an unlimited supply of drivers. “If there is a cap that limits the number of new drivers, then the drivers that exist have to be treated with respect and dignity. Otherwise, you’re losing business.”

Franklin, however, believed the “out of state issue” was exaggerated and that the alderman was planning to push the amendment forward because it would be popular.

According to monthly data released by the City of Chicago, only 6% of the city’s active drivers, defined as those who picked up more than 10 rides a month, were from out-of-state in December.

Out-of-state drivers graph
A comparative bar graph outlining the number of total active drivers vs. the number of out of state active drivers over the last three months. This chart has been built on Piktochart. (Kari McMahon/MEDILL)

“[The amendment] will appease the taxi drivers,” Franklin said, adding that he thought many of the out-of-state license plates were from rental cars.

Lewis from Cab Drivers United said the amendment was just a starting point and that the organization hoped to push for more regulation. She agreed with Franklin that the biggest challenge was a general “oversupply of drivers” because there is no regulation over the number of drivers that join ride-hail services in the city.

Last December, Chicago Jobs with Justice Workers Rights Board, an organization that helps support and protect worker’s rights, held a series of hearings with ride-hail drivers to understand the issues drivers face. They subsequently sent Mayor Lori Lightfoot a policy proposal with 11,000 postcards written by drivers.

Example of driver postcard
An example of the postcard’s drivers sent to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, courtesy of Meg Lewis from Cab Drivers United. (Meg Lewis/Cab Drivers United)

Driver advocacy groups said they planned to meet with aldermen in coming months as they continue to push for increased regulation.

First on their list of demands is a cap on the number of drivers operating in the city. The city attempted to address this through the implementation of a congestion tax, which aimed to reduce the number of vehicles downtown, however many drivers felt customers would still use ride-hail services downtown and the tax would ultimately impact their pay.

“In my opinion, the out of state stuff is sort of biting at the edges; The appearance of throwing a bone but it really doesn’t actually necessarily solve anything,” Franklin said.

Photo at top: Taxi driver waits on Michigan Avenue (Kari McMahon/MEDILL)