Will a new ordinance make taxis safer and greener, or just hurt cabdrivers?

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Photos by Paolo Cisneros

Taxicabs make it easier to live in or visit a city without owning a car, and they help reduce traffic congestion and the need for parking spaces, so they definitely play an important role in Chicago’s sustainable transportation scene. This article was contributed by Paolo Cisneros, a graduate of the journalism program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a former writer with the Chicago Dispatcher, which covers the local taxi industry. A native Chicagoan, Paolo’s work focuses primarily on environmental and social justice issues. Follow him on Twitter at @PaoloCisneros.

Remember last fall when a bunch of fancy-pants meteorologists predicted this was going to be one of the harshest winters in Chicago history?

Be honest. How filled with anxiety and dread did your life suddenly become?

For most of us, such a reaction was to be expected, but there was one group of people who couldn’t have been happier about the news: Chicago’s taxi drivers.

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Cabbies, of course, depend on rain, sleet, snow and other such miserable conditions to deter people from walking or choosing other modes of transportation. So when the weather’s nice, they tend to make less money. Which means this winter’s mild temperatures have likely meant smaller profits than most taxi drivers were expecting.

And as winter turns to spring, Chicago taxi drivers will continue to remain on edge. An ordinance spearheaded by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and 9th Ward Alderman Anthony Beale, recently passed by an overwhelming majority of the City Council, is set to change the rules for drivers and riders alike. While city officials claims the changes are necessary to increase public safety, drivers fear their ability to make a living wage will take a serious hit once the new regulations go into effect this summer.

In order to understand their concerns, it’s important to first understand how the industry works. The city regulates cabs through the sale of licenses which are known as medallions. In order to operate on Chicago streets, each taxi must have a medallion prominently displayed on its hood. They currently sell for around $300,000 a piece.

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Suffice it to say, most taxi drivers don’t have a medallion of their own. They work as independent contractors, leasing vehicles on a daily or weekly basis from someone who does. These tend to be companies like Yellow Cab or Globe Taxi which manage large fleets of cabs.

In addition to paying this lease, cab drivers must also pay for gas. So in order to make any money as a driver, you’ve got to offset these costs every single day.

To ensure that drivers are making a profit in the long-run, the city places caps on how much medallion owners can charge for a lease. But the ordinance that recently passed through the City Council will implement an experimental new system that allows owners to charge more for cars with greater fuel efficiency.

The city argues this system will encourage medallion owners to invest in green vehicles while indirectly saving drivers money when it comes time to fill up at the pump. The problem, however, is that no one really knows whether those savings will be enough to actually offset the higher lease rates in the long-run.

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The only thing they’ll do for sure is put more money in the pockets of taxi affiliations. And that doesn’t sit well with cab drivers, who haven’t received a fare increase since 2005. Commissioner Rosemary Krimbel of the city’s Dept. of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection recently said a fare increase is off the table for 2012, so drivers worry that increased lease costs, combined with a new rule that they can only work 12 consecutive hours each day, is going to mean a huge financial blow.

It’s difficult to determine exactly how much Chicago cab drivers are actually earning, but their concerns likely aren’t without merit. A 2011 study by The Chicago Dispatcher found that Chicago cab fares are some of the lowest in the country. And if you ask most drivers, they’ll tell you the changes that are coming will only make things worse.

For example, many drivers worry that an increase in lease costs may force them to work more days a week, without taking days off to rest. If that’s the case, the city’s efforts to yank dangerous drivers off the streets sooner (a provision also included in the ordinance) may be in vain.

We all want safer streets. And while taxis aren’t a perfect mode of transportation by any means, they are an important part of Chicago’s existing transportation mix. The question is, how can Chicago balance the desire for safer, greener taxi service with cab drivers’ need for adequate compensation?

Until that happens, don’t be surprised if the return of sunshine isn’t enough to put a smile on your driver’s face.

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