CITY HALL — Cabbies faced off with Uber and Lyft drivers Wednesday at a City Council committee hearing considering new regulations on the ride-hailing industry.
"This is the Jetsons vs. the Flintstones," said Ald. Joe Moreno (1st), in advocating lessened regulations against taxis rather than increased regulations for ride hailing.
Ald. Joe Moore (49th) called it "a solution in search of a problem."
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) later depicted the conflict as billion-dollar corporations "pitting one group of vulnerable workers against another."
The ordinance, sponsored by Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), chairman of the Transportation Committee, would call on ride-hailing drivers to have restricted chauffeur's licenses, similar to those required of limousine drivers, including background checks with fingerprinting and calls for additional training. It would also call on ride-hailing companies and their drivers to clear an estimated $15 million in fines and fees owed the city.
Beale said at the outset that the committee would not vote on the ordinance Wednesday, although plans are to have it ready for consideration by the full City Council next month.
"This hearing will take place in an orderly fashion," Beale said. "In my opinion, the ordinance is a safety ordinance. ... It has nothing to do with one side or the other.
"We're not trying to put anybody out of business," Beale added. "We're trying to bring fairness and equality to this industry" and "make sure both sides can coexist."
The Progressive Reform Caucus lined up in support, issuing a statement saying the proposal "would increase public safety for Chicagoans using ride share by making ride-share drivers subject to more thorough background checks and receive adequate training."
Lyft Vice President Joseph Okpaku, however, testified that it would "undo all the benefits" the ride-hailing industry provides and "make it impossible for Lyft and companies like it to operate in the city."
Marco McCottry, general manager of Uber Chicago, added that it would "devastate ride sharing as we know it" and cost thousands of jobs to drivers.
Charging "scare tactics," Beale countered that Lyft was worth $68 billion and could afford the regulation. He insisted the hassle of obtaining a chauffeur's license was minimal, $115 and a one-day instruction course. "You can get a chauffeur's license in a day," he said.
Ald. John Arena (45th) also cited the company's worth in adding that Lyft was welcome to leave the city if it threatened to do so.
The gallery was packed, for the most part, with Uber and Lyft drivers wearing blue and pink T-shirts whom Beale persistently quieted from shouts and cheers. Arena suggested if they "can come down and cheerlead for a billion-dollar corporation," they can take a day off to get licensed.
Advocating for jobs, Woodlawn activist the Rev. Leon Finney argued that fingerprinting checks were inherently discriminatory to minorities, who are more likely to have been arrested for minor offenses as youths.
Okpaku agreed, pointing to how 58 percent of Lyft drivers are minorities, and adding, "You get a fingerprint when you're arrested. You don't get another fingerprint when you're acquitted." He said, "Ride sharing is safer than taxis."
Ramirez-Rosa, however, blasted those using an argument of racial discrimination to defend billion-dollar corporations "pitting one group of vulnerable workers against another" — cabbies who suddenly find their previously $360,000 taxi medallions devalued, against those undercutting them to make a few extra dollars driving for Uber or Lyft.
"I am tired of the lies from Uber and Lyft," he said of their claims of adequate background checks without fingerprinting. "You need to be regulated, and you can afford the cost of this licensing."
Moreno boasted of taking an Uber to Wednesday's meeting with a driver named Aaron he could see on his phone.
"Without fingerprinting, do you know that's actually him?" Beale countered, citing testimony that a fingerprint check was more likely to turn up past aliases.
Omar Duque, president of the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, charged that FBI fingerprinting typically takes two weeks. Beale countered that the Chicago Police Department would conduct the check "and it gets turned around in one day."
Earlier, Moore called the proposal "a wolf in sheep's clothing" and "nothing more than an attempt to stifle competition" as he rallied Uber and Lyft drivers at a news conference immediately before the hearing.
"We're fighting for freedom — freedom of time," said Lyft driver Lamont Campbell.
Duque said Uber and Lyft serve West and South Side communities that taxis are reluctant to drive through. He said 92 percent of the rides provided in those areas came from ride-hailing services.
Uber driver Priscilla Beecham-Joseph said she served her Austin neighborhood, where if a taxi appeared "it would be like a spaceship coming down in our community."
In testimony before the joint Transportation and License Committee, however, Adam Ballard of Access Living charged that ride-hailing services were "openly discriminatory" toward people with disabilities and that the inequality between the industries threatened the existence of taxis, which are required to serve the disabled.
According to Ballard, 620 taxi medallions have recently been lost to foreclosure, and the collapse of the taxi industry would be a calamity to the disabled.
Meg Lewis, of Cab Drivers United, said new taxi-medallion foreclosures this year meant "700 sitting idle," or about a tenth of the city's available medallions.
Ballard made three demands: Drivers would have to get uniform background checks; at least 5 percent of the fleets must accommodate wheelchairs; and each company must operate complaint and response systems aimed specifically at the disabled.
"This is a bare minimum for my community," Ballard said.
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