Chicago cabs


Dmitry Samarov—artist, writer, cab driver, and former Off the Grid contributor—just weighed in on the mayor's plans to increasingly regulate the city's taxi drivers. Here's the outline of the ordinance proposed by Rahm Emanuel and Anthony Beale:

A new limit on age of vehicles that can be put on Chicago’s roads by lowering the maximum number of miles on a new taxi from 150,000 to 75,000…. A tiered lease system that will incentivize fuel-efficient and wheelchair-accessible vehicles…. Denial of renewal for chauffeurs with three moving violations in a 12-month period…. A limitation to no more than 12 hours of driving each day for drivers, in line with federal motor vehicle safety laws, as well as industry standards for other drivers of commercial vehicles….

Samarov's first complaint has to do with the hourly limitations:

You want to restrict the hours that a cabbie can drive per day but that’s one of the few freedoms we have: we choose when we work and when we don’t. It’s not a 9 to 5 job and even if we wanted it to be it doesn’t pay well enough to make it worthwhile when limited to a set strict schedule. It’s a 24/7 business and it demands a workforce that can accommodate and bend with its ever-variable demands.


You want us to work less? Why not raise the fare rates to at least keep up with the cost of living. I’m sure you know the statistics: Chicago has the lowest cab rates of any major city in America. I don’t expect New York rates but we’re killing ourselves for a pittance out there.

The numbers are pretty surprising, as Dr. Robert Bruno of the UIC found in his 2008 study "Driven Into Poverty: 2008 Comprehensive Study of the Taxicab Industry" (PDF). In a sample of 711 of the 10,500 licensed drivers at the time, here's what he found:

That's including tips: a net income of $12,321 at a job that averages 13-hour shifts (i.e. it averages one more hour than the ordinance would restrict shifts to). And that's in line with BLS statistics: "Median annual wages of wage and salary taxi drivers and chauffeurs, including tips, were $21,550 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $17,770 and $26,800. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $15,620, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $34,210." That's 326 hours a month, or almost 11 hours a day at seven days a week. And the city's fares are pretty low, at least in comparison to cities with similar costs of living.

According to the Chicago Dispatcher, it's the shift-hour limit that has caused a backlash against the regulations, as cab drivers have pointed out the difficulty of regulating what 12 hours consist of in a job that doesn't have consistent work hours, expressing a similar take to Samarov's:

“There are people who have medical conditions and need time to take their insulin or whatever they have to do to take care of themselves. There are people who have religions and need to execute their prayers. There are single parents who need to take care of the children by dropping them off and picking them up from school,” Iovana said.

When cabbies lease a cab for 24 hours, they say they choose this option for flexibility and to ensure their rest.


“We don’t see why the mayor is trying to tell us how many hours we can work a day. This is not a job that we work for an hourly basis. You never know when you’re going to make money. Nobody can even drive three hours consistently, we don’t do that,” he said.

The proposed reforms came in the wake of an extensive Tribune investigation, but as the Trib itself noted in response, they don't really address the heart of the investigative series:

But while the plan addresses many of the issues raised by the Tribune investigation, it doesn't take up one of the major findings: the failure of the city's administrative hearing process to discipline cabbies with the worst driving records.

George Lutfallah, publisher of the Dispatcher, connects the city's cab-safety issues to the drivers' low wages:

Chicago taxi drivers haven't had a meter increase in more than six years and have among the lowest rates of fare in the nation. Chicago politicians have made this a cutthroat business, which isn't good for public safety.

Another tension for the drivers is the ordinance's treatment of taxi-lease rates. Right now they're at a maximum of $57 for 12 hours and $78.50 for 24 hours (including repairs and maintenance). Beale's ordinance would raise the lease cap along three tiers: $74 and $101 for the most efficient vehicles, $69 and $93 for the second tier, and $59/$85 for the beaters, with similar hikes for weekly leases. The lease hike on more efficient vehicles is supposed to be an incentive for cab companies to lease more efficient vehicles, but if the leases increase and fares don't, the difference is likely to fall on the drivers. The city says that more efficient vehicles will save $40 a day, but it's hard to see how, as the Dispatcher indicates:

Comparing these two structures, for a driver to save $40 per day he would need to drive 957 miles, assuming the $3.42 gas prices. Given the additional cost of the top tier vehicle, the cabbie would need to drive 359 miles before it would start to pay off.

It's a lot to square—the hacks' demands for higher fares, the public's demand for safer streets, and the difficulty of addressing problem cab drivers once they reach the legal system—with the NATO/G8 influx breathing down our necks.

Related: Felix Salmon blames medallion owners for drivers' low wages, at least in terms of the situation in New York City.


Photograph: jlodder (CC by 2.0)