WEST LOOP — An upstart ride-sharing service responded to challenges from the taxi industry Thursday by rallying voters against a state bill and attempting to recruit cabbies to convert.
Uber launched a blog and distributed an online petition, urging the public to "Save UberX in Chicago!" It asked riders to forward the petition to legislators in the General Assembly lobbying against a bill sponsored by state Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-Riverside). The bill generally seeks to treat so-called ride-sharing services more like cab companies, and would allow local governments to impose stricter standards against ride sharing, but not "less restrictive" measures.
"This is not a compromise bill," the petition said. "This is Springfield taking away transportation options from Chicago consumers, and harming the local economy."
According to Uber spokeswoman Lauren Altmin, the petition picked up 10,000 signatures in the first seven hours. Lyft also blogged against the bill and urged public opposition.
"Uber has engaged in a canned e-mail campaign that spreads lies about the status of the bill," responded Angela Benander, a spokeswoman for the taxi industry. "Under Rep. Zalewski’s leadership, a compromise bill was reached which allows ride sharing to prosper while protecting the public. This bill meets 85 percent of the ride-share companies’ demands while at the same time preserving the tens of thousands of taxi jobs in this state."
The bill nonetheless passed the state House by an 80-26 vote Thursday and heads for consideration in the Senate.
The Illinois Transportation Trade Association, which represents the interests of cab companies, issued a statement saying: "We are pleased that the Illinois House has passed this important legislation to level the playing field and protect public safety. Under the leadership of Rep. Mike Zalewski, and with the support of a bipartisan group of lawmakers, the bill demonstrates the General Assembly’s overwhelming support for statewide regulation of ride sharing.
“Notwithstanding Uber’s last-minute dirty tricks in the form of canned and deceitful e-mails, the House members recognized the bill balances the needs of the ride-sharing industry and minimum standards designed to protect the public."
Uber Regional General Manager Andrew Macdonald said the passage of the bill "in its current form destroys thousands of jobs in Chicago, slashes income opportunities for Chicago’s ride-share drivers and effectively shuts down UberX in Chicago." He added that it was "a win for the corporate taxi special interests and a loss for the thousands of Uber users in Chicago who banded together in short order to save ride sharing in Illinois and were effectively ignored."
Macdonald called the bill a "backroom rush job" and added he hoped for a better outcome in the Senate "to develop regulations that don’t destroy the spirit of innovation so critical to Illinois’ future."
Uber is the overarching ride-sharing company, which can hail a cab or ride-share car via smartphone app. UberX is its independent ride-sharing service with its own drivers.
The distinction is key, in that UberX is now recruiting cabbies to convert. It sent a text message to taxi drivers Wednesday evening inviting them to "come into the office" and get details about a $50 bonus for signing up and a $400 promotional offer.
More than a dozen showed up at the appointed time Thursday. The drivers generally asked not to share their names, fearing reprisals from the cab companies that employ them.
One, however, who said he leases a cab for $400 a week, said, "I'm just here to check it out."
"UberX is actively seeking to recruit taxi drivers with the lure that they can make more money driving their own vehicles," Benander said. She again cited the Zalewski bill, saying it "will level the playing field so that professional full-time taxi drivers are not competing under an unfair set of rules that would have hurt their ability to make a living."
"We've seen hundreds of taxi drivers seek better economic opportunity with UberX," Macdonald responded. "In doing so, they make more money, have more flexibility and are better able support their families. More transportation options aren't just good for consumers — they're good for drivers, too."
Conventional cab companies and upstart ride-sharing services have been in open conflict since the city began weighing competing proposals on the two. Aldermen Edward Burke (14th) and Anthony Beale (9th), head of the Transportation Committee, have put forth a resolution asking the city to enforce its taxi regulations against ride-sharing companies like UberX, Lyft and Sidecar. Cab companies and taxi drivers have filed suit against the city seeking the same. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has responded with an ordinance that would create a separate, two-tiered license for ride sharing.
The issue is complicated, on the mayor's side, in that attorney Michael Kasper is a registered lobbyist for Uber. Kasper argued Emanuel's case on residency when he ran for mayor in 2011, and Kasper's own website quotes language calling him "the mayor's friend and personal lawyer."
The Mayor's Press Office dismissed even the appearance of a conflict and insisted the mayor's proposed ordinance would be "one of the strongest in the nation" regulating ride sharing. It is considering the effects of Zalewski's bill clearing the House.