Chicago taxicab safety audit baits rideshare opponents, highlights broken system

Chicago taxicab safety audit baits rideshare opponents, highlights broken system

"The real safety risk is posed by so-called ride-share operators like Uber and Lyft that are barely regulated at all."

That’s what Tracey Abman, associate director of AFSCME Council 31, said in a statement to the media after reports surfaced that a city audit revealed failures in Chicago’s taxicab safety inspections.

She also maintained that licensed taxis remain the safest choice for consumers.

The audit, conducted by Chicago’s Office of the Inspector General, found the following:

  • “missing or incorrect safety citation records prevented [Business Affairs and Consumer Protection] from accurately monitoring inspection compliance;
  • “although BACP completed almost all semiannual inspections in 2013—inspecting 99.5% of the 6,849 taxicabs needing inspection—broken equipment prevented the Department  from completing brake tests according to its own standards.”

Taxicab supporters have rallied behind the claim that ridesharing services are unsafe and a maverick form of transportation. But scant evidence exists that ridesharing customers are in any greater danger when opting out of traditional taxi service, according to the Cato Institute. And ridesharing offers sizable safety advantages for drivers, since they don’t have to carry cash on hand.

Cabs regularly refuse service to underserved neighborhoods on the south and west sides of the city, as reported by the Washington Post. Additionally, reports of drivers refusing customers who wish to pay with credit cards are the norm; unfortunately, there are also reports of cab drivers refusing service to people with disabilities. That’s not to say that all taxi drivers are bad people – they certainly have personal safety concerns. Having lots of cash on hand leads to a higher risk of theft, which is heightened in dangerous neighborhoods. The occupational fatal injury rate (which includes homicides) of taxi drivers and chauffeurs ranged from 14.7 per 100,000 to 19.7 per 100,000 between 2006 and 2012, according to data from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries gathered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported by the Cato Institute.

Licensed taxi drivers and rideshare drivers alike are prone to human error. Accidents happen. But the issue here is not ridesharing vs. taxis – it’s that the city’s regulations are flawed.

The issues the inspector general’s audit pointed out – that city regulations certainly do not guarantee safe transportation – are part of a problem that’s bigger than just safety inspections: the regulatory system itself is poorly designed. The entire taxi structure revolves around the “medallion,” a permit issued by the city that a driver must own or lease to operate a cab.

These medallions don’t come cheap. During the 2013 medallion auction, bidding started at $360,000 a piece. On top of the money the city makes off of medallion sales, Chicago also gets a 5-20 percent cut each time a medallion is sold privately (that takeaway would range from $17,500-$70,000 on a $350,000 medallion).

As the inspector general’s office pointed out, medallion transfer fees alone generated $6.5 million in 2013, and the city’s medallion auction that year brought in an additional $11.9 million

The average cab driver can’t afford a price that steep. Of the nearly 7,000 taxis operating in the city, it’s estimated that only 2,000 are owned by independent taxi drivers. The rest of the drivers on the road are leasing the right to operate taxis using the remaining medallions, paying an average of nearly $500 per week.

Drivers also are on the hook for fuel, airport taxes and cab maintenance.

Before they even start the meter, drivers are already handicapped by the city’s arcane fare structure: $3.25 for the base rate, $1.80 for each additional mile, $2 for the airport departure/arrival tax, $50 vomit cleanup fee. These rates haven’t changed for years, though drivers say the leases they have to pay continue to increase.

The unfairness of this system is reflected in drivers’ wages. According to a study from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Labor and Employment Relations, the average net annual income for a driver was $12,321. (However, another study commissioned by the city of Chicago found that taxi drivers make more than $12 an hour.)

City officials haven’t made the taxi system safer for riders, and they certainly haven’t made the profession more lucrative for drivers. These regulations do, however, continue to make the city a lot of money.

Drivers work hard to support their families, but they are forced to overcome steep odds to achieve their ends. The city owes it to these drivers to break down the barriers to earning a living as a cab driver, starting with the medallion system. Passengers deserve to be safe when riding in a cab – and drivers deserve the freedom to make a living behind the wheel.

Image credit: vonderauvisuals

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