While I was reporting this story about the toll Uber is taking on taxi medallions, I spent several depressing hours one Saturday afternoon reading over a spreadsheet of consumer complaints filed with the city of Chicago about cab service there. The city's department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection fields about 12,000 cab complaints each year online, through its 311 phone service or in person. That's about 33 a day.
The details contained in those complaints humanize an issue -- the challenge of providing universal service -- at the heart of the battle between the taxi industry and "transportation network companies" like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar. These startups enable anyone with a car and a smartphone to become a driver for hire. And such consumer complaints help illustrate why these companies believe they have such an opening in Chicago and other cities.
"Uber’s entire business model is built on serving customers who haven’t been able to get served by taxis to date," Corey Owens, Uber's head of global public policy, told me.
These complaints describe consumers ignored by taxis, rejected by their drivers, or left at the curb when they wanted a ride to the wrong part of town. They complicate the argument, made by the taxi industry, that existing regulation -- with its cap on the number of taxis in operation -- is essential to assure universal service to all neighborhoods and all passengers.
In theory, rush hour service subsidizes off-peak service. Big fares to the airport subsidize less profitable trips to outlying neighborhoods. Downtown rides subsidize transportation for passengers with disabilities. Open up the market to an unlimited number of part-timers, the industry argues, and Uber and Lyft drivers will snatch up only the most lucrative rides, leaving whole neighborhoods and classes of consumers stranded without transportation.
We don't yet know how this will actually play out. "Based on what we've seen, the taxi industry doesn't do a lot of its pickups and dropoffs in the underserved south and west side neighborhoods," Michael Negron, the chief of policy in the Chicago mayor's office told me. But, he adds, "we don't know how rideshares are doing."
The city's new regulation requires companies like Uber to hand over data to answer this question (it also requires them to provide the same kind of universal service as taxis). But, in the meantime, from the data we do have, it's clear that cabs aren't doing well on this front, either.
Many of the consumer complaints read like small, self-contained urban dramas. They reminded me of six word stories -- or, at least, slightly longer versions of them, where we're left to imagine the rest of the narrative on our own.
Here is one:
DRIVER ENTERED CIRCULAR DRIVEWAY TO PICK UP. UPON SEEING PASSENGER'S GUIDE DOG, DRIVER SPED AWAY.
Between January of 2012 and November of 2013, a version of this scene repeats itself 13 times at the same downtown Chicago address, where presumably a blind resident has perpetual trouble getting a cab.
This is one of my favorites because it describes the South Side neighborhood where I grew up, and a particularly inventive tactic for refusing service there:
SAT DOWN IN CAB. EXPLAINED I WANTED TO GO TO HYDE PARK. HE SAID "THIS CAR CAN NOT GO TO HYDE PARK". HE PRETENDED IT WAS NOT PART OF CHICAGO.
Several more indicative of the lot:
CAB PULLED OVER TO PICK US UP AND ASKED "WHERE ARE YOU GOING AND HOW WILL YOU PAY"? WE STATED "ANDERSONVILLE & CREDIT CARD". CAB DRIVER STATED "SORRY, ONLY CASH", ROLLED UP HIS WINDOW AND DROVE OFF
CAB DRIVER REFUSED TO TAKE CALLER TO OAK PARK UNLESS SHE PAID METER AND A HALF. OAK PARK IS A STRAIGHT METER FARE.
CAB DRIVER REFUSED TO PICK UP CALLER WHO IS AFRICAN AMERICAN AND PICKED UP A CAUCASIAN COUPLE RIGHT IN FRONT OF HER
DRIVER PULLED OVER AND CALLER ASKED HIM TO OPEN TRUNK - DRIVER ASKED "WHERE YOU GOING" AND CALLER TOLD HIM IT SHOULDN'T MATTER - DRIVER CLOSED DOOR AND TOOK OFF
I INFORMED THE DRIVER OF THE ADDRESS OF MY DESTINATION WHICH WAS MY HOME ADDRESS. THE DRIVER INFORMED ME THAT HE DOES NOT GO TO THE SOUTHSIDE. THE DRIVER INDICATED THAT HIS LIFE WAS WORTH MORE THAN SOME FINE HE MAY HAVE TO PAY.
NOT PICKING UP CALLER, SCRUFFY BECAUSE OF PROFESSION, CONSTRUCTION, JUST GETTING OFF WORK AND FEELS DISCRIMINATED AGAINST
DRIVER STOPPED LOOKED AT CALLER AND JUST KEPT DRIVING
ALL CAB COMPANIES REFUSE TO PICK UP FROM OUR LOCATION
DISPATCH NEVER SENT CAB OVER TWO HOURS WAITING
DRIVER REFUSED TO TAKE CALLER BECAUSE SHE HAD A BABY WITH HER
HE SAID "IT'S TOO SHORT"
To be fair, the takeaway here is not that taxi drivers are jerks. Many of them are motivated by worries about their own safety, or their own meager income. The bigger takeaway is that the existing taxi system fails many consumers -- and perhaps does a poor job of incentivizing drivers to serve them. Whether Uber and Lyft will do a better job is an open question.