Illinois Issues: How Uber And Lyft Are Catering To Communities Of Color

Nov 5, 2015

As they grow their reach in the state, ride-sharing companies are bringing transportation and jobs to underserved neighborhoods in some Illinois cities. 

Derrick Milligan works in an office building at the corner of State and Superior in downtown Chicago. He is blocks from the Magnificent Mile shopping district, surrounded by commerce, bustle and activity. Chicago’s approximately 7,000 taxis flock to this area of the city, knowing they’re sure to find a fare. But Milligan tries to make sure he is never in a position where he needs to hail a cab.

As a dark-skinned black man, Milligan says hailing a cab on the street always presents a strong chance of humiliation. He has had cabs fly by with their service lights on and seen lights go off once he raises his hand, only to turn back on half a block away. He has watched cabs pass him by and then pick up someone else down the street. He has even had his fingers on the handle, ready to get into a cab when the doors lock and a driver lets someone else in on the other side. 

Derrick Milligan started using Uber about two years ago as a way to avoid racial discrimination from some cab drivers who refuse to pick him up or take him where he wants to go.
Credit Tara García Mathewson

“I used to feel like a certain suit, a certain set of accessories, shielded it, and it probably is better, but it’s not ideal,” Milligan says. “I’ve been passed in tuxes. I’ve been passed in designer clothes. I’ve been passed as a working model.”

A couple of years ago Milligan started taking Uber and occasionally Lyft. The ride-sharing companies, which let him request a ride through apps on his phone, remove the danger of being humiliated by drivers who refuse to let him in their cars.

Milligan lives in Rogers Park, on the north side of the city. In addition to getting rides to and from work appointments, he also uses the service to go to the airport or visit family and friends on the far south and west sides, where cab drivers often don’t want to go.

“I’ve never had an Uber say, ‘I can’t take you there,’” Milligan says “And I have had cabs say, ‘I can’t take you there.’”

The rise of Uber

Uber officially started serving Chicago in the fall of 2011 with a black car service that was more expensive than cabs, and it launched its less pricey UberX option in the spring of 2013. UberX, like Lyft, offers a cheaper alternative to cabs and lets drivers use their own cars, whatever the model, as long as they’re not too old.

Uber founder Travis Kalanick at a 2012 TechCrunch event
Credit TechCrunch

Early on, many cab drivers didn’t appear too worried about the new services. Some said there were enough passengers for everybody and pointed out that Uber and Lyft market to different, often younger, constituents. But Cheryl Miller, a 20-year veteran cab driver and a member of Cab Drivers United/AFSCME Local 2500, says the story has changed dramatically.

“Particularly in the last year,” Miller says. “I think that the numbers of vehicles that are being dispatched for passenger fares have reached a critical moment.”

It became apparent to many drivers this past New Year’s Eve, Miller says. Typically one of the busiest nights of the year, many drivers took a near loss. And the whole winter was very slow, Miller says, forcing drivers to work more hours to take home the same amount of money. 

I’ve never had an Uber say, "I can’t take you there." And I have had cabs say, "I can’t take you there."

Chicago has about 7,000 cabs on its streets, a number artificially controlled by the government through its sale of medallions, which give drivers permission to operate. Uber, by far the largest ride-sharing company operating in Chicago, has said it has more than 20,000 drivers in the city and plans to hire 10,000 more specifically on the south and west sides, where cabs are often scarce. Miller doesn’t think there’s enough business for everyone. 

For part-time drivers signing on with Uber or Lyft to earn some extra cash on top of their regular jobs, that might not be a big deal. But for people who thought becoming a cab driver was a path to good, full-time pay, oversaturation is a big problem.

Choosing ride-share

Ride-sharing businesses have spread throughout Illinois, offering service in urban areas and college towns. In Springfield, Champaign-Urbana, Bloomington-Normal, Waukegan, Rockford and Aurora, students and other residents have found alternatives to cabs that many rarely used in the first place.

In Waukegan, Michele Munji hardly ever used cabs because it took too long from the time of the call to their arrival at her door. Now she uses Uber several times per week, often for social engagements and sometimes for her own commute. Munji’s story is repeated over and over by ride-share users across the state. 

I feel like especially for those who live around my area, it's a great new source of income that they can't find in the neighborhood.

Damariz Hidalgo grew up in Belmont Cragin on Chicago’s west side and has waited up to three hours for a cab to show up. She calls public transportation “dodgey” in that area and has found it hard to accept last-minute social engagements because of how long it takes to get a cab or take public transit to another part of the city.

Now Hidalgo can get a ride in three to five minutes. Besides their personal convenience, Hidalgo sees the ride-sharing companies as expanding job opportunities in her community. People who want to drive can get jobs directly from Uber or Lyft, and ride-sharing also provides a faster, more reliable commuting option.

“I feel like especially for those who live around my area, it’s a great new source of income that they can’t find in the neighborhood,” Hidalgo says.

Dorothy Woods lives near Hyde Park and quit her job in security to start driving for Lyft and Uber. Her hours had been erratic, and she wanted something that would allow her to pick up her 5-year-old and 3-year-old from preschool. They start school at 8:30 a.m., putting her on the roads at 9 a.m. to drive strangers. She puts in about 30 hours per week, sometimes less, and still makes her quota of earning $500 per week, after the ride-sharing companies take their cut.

Uber recently started airing a radio spot aimed at minority communities and the problems they’ve had with cabs.

“Think about this,” the narrator says. “When’s the last time you saw a taxi cab in your neighborhood? And have you ever had an empty cab pass you by? And how does that make you feel? People assume that there isn’t much we can do about it. But we can.”

Dorothy Woods left her job in security for the flexibility Uber and Lyft give her to make her own schedule. She drives about 30 hours per week.

Uber claims more than half of UberX trips in Chicago begin or end in neighborhoods that are otherwise underserved by cabs. While Uber did not respond to a request for this data in Chicago, FiveThirtyEight analyzed data in New York City and found that Uber drivers pick up a greater share of rides outside of Manhattan than their taxi-driving counterparts — 22 percent versus 14 percent.

Woods starts her shift around Hyde Park, near her home. Quickly, though, her passengers take her to the busiest areas of Chicago — downtown, or the airport. Still, riders from all parts of the city open their apps to find an Uber driver just minutes away.

Woods says she loves the freedom of being a driver. She has a $350-per-month payment for a 2013 Nissan Altima S that she financed with Uber’s help from a partnering dealership. Uber gets a cut of all of her fares, but she’s working fewer hours than she used to and has more control over her time.

“I love it,” Woods says. “You can’t beat making your own schedule and having that freedom to do whatever you want, move around when you like.”

Marcela Licea is another one of Uber’s drivers who lives in an “underserved neighborhood,” at least starting and ending her work days in it, if not spending the bulk of her driving time there. Licea lives in Cicero and drives both Lyft and Uber part-time, in addition to her work as a Chicago Public Schools teacher. Licea said she spends most of her driving time downtown or on the north side of the city, where there is the most demand.

So what's the problem?

Miller expects Uber’s ride data is connected more to where their drivers live than where they spend most of their time.

“Uber likes to say ‘Our drivers start and finish in underserved neighborhoods.’ Well so do I,” Miller says. “I live on the south side. I start out and finish on the south side every day.”

She says Chicago policy has eliminated incentives for taxis to serve low-income and minority neighborhoods by removing cab stands and doing away with a program that offered low-cost medallions to people who promised to spend a significant amount of time in underserved communities for at least five years. Without the incentives, cab drivers simply lose money by spending time in Bronzeville over Lincoln Park. 

So far, the government has largely left it up to Uber and Lyft to decide who is qualified to be one of their drivers.

And, Miller wonders, if Uber does so much work in underserved communities, why does it need access to the airports, longtime bastions of cab companies with medallions.

Cabbies argue ride-sharing companies employ drivers that provide the exact same services as they do. Because of this, they say these drivers should be subject to the same regulations as they are. That means a two-week training program about Chicago geography and navigation, rules and regulations, accessibility training and professional development at Olive Harvey College.

After taking the course, cab drivers must pass an exam to get a chauffeur’s license. They also must be at least 21 years old, have an active permanent license in good standing, clear a criminal background check, take a drug test and pass a physical exam, be cleared of any debts to the city or get on an authorized payment plan, be in good standing with court-ordered child support payments and pass an English proficiency exam.

The City of Chicago has slightly fewer than 13,000 people in its database of public chauffeurs with active licenses to drive taxis. The chauffeur’s license has to be renewed every year and cab drivers must pass an intensive vehicle inspection annually to maintain the right to shuttle passengers.

So far, the government has largely left it up to Uber and Lyft to decide who is qualified to be one of their drivers.

Chicago has plans to step up regulations of the ride-sharing industry, in part as a revenue tool for the cash-strapped city. In announcing his proposed 2016 budget, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the city will collect $48 million more than last year in fees on the taxi and ride-sharing industry, the vast majority of which will come from previously uncollected fees on companies like Lyft and Uber. 

Veteran cab driver Cheryl Miller speaks on behalf of Cab Drivers United/AFSCME Local 2500 at a September 2015 event supporting regulation for ride-sharing.
Credit Cab Drivers United/AFSCME Local 2500

Emanuel also announced a tax credit program in October that would incentivize both taxis and ride-share drivers to spend more time in underserved communities.

At the state level, the Illinois legislature has agreed to five years with no new regulation after passing a comprehensive bill in January that upped the insurance requirements of companies like Uber and Lyft and created new safety standards. The state law requires ride-sharing companies to conduct background checks on drivers and mandates a zero-tolerance policy relating to drug and alcohol use.

Rep. Michael Zalewski, a Riverside Democrat, was one of the most ardent supporters of regulation. The first bill he sponsored ended up getting vetoed by former Gov. Pat Quinn.

“At the outset, my concern was that we had a new and emerging technology with no rules,” Zalewski says. While the final bill was weaker than the original, Zalewski says he is happy with the legislation.

The idea of access for underserved communities was a key issue for Zalewski from the beginning. He says he and fellow legislators wanted to make sure those areas were not ignored by ride-sharing companies in favor of busier downtown spots. Early critics of Uber argued it would simply increase congestion where cabs were already handling demand. The company’s recent radio commercial, however, highlights its latest messaging tactic — rallying people of color to support access and equity through ride-sharing.

“They have understandably made that a cornerstone of their marketing approach,” Zalewski says. “I think Uber, to their credit, has done a good job of addressing those concerns. It’s smart business sense and it also makes public policy sense.”

There’s still plenty to criticize about Uber, like its strong-arm tactics in its competition with Lyft, it’s questionable practices when it comes to consumer privacy and its decimation of the Carnegie Mellon robotics department, when it poached 40 employees from the school in its quest to replace most of its drivers with self-driving cars. But black and brown men, especially, and people who live in low-income neighborhoods or those far from a city center, reap the benefits of ride-sharing every day.