Getting around the Windy City

FILLERS

BY JOHN CULLEN

We went to Chicago last weekend to celebrate the engagement of our daughter Bridget to Branden Laxner. They live downtown, and normally we would get a hotel there, but for some reason room rates were sky high. There must have been some big convention that weekend. Most rooms were going for $350-$400 per night, plus another $65 per night for parking, so we stayed at a nice hotel near O’Hare airport where the room rate was $95 and parking was free.

The hotel has a free shuttle bus to the Blue Line, part of Chicago’s celebrated “L” system of subways and commuter trains where you can ride anywhere in the city, 24 hours a day, for $5. We took the Blue Line downtown during the day. At night we rode with Uber and Lyft, the ride-sharing services that are driving taxis crazy.

There are a couple of reasons we chose ride-sharing services, which are private cars driven by their owners. First, they are cheaper. A taxi trip to O’Hare from downtown runs about $40 without tip; except for rush-hour, the same trip in Lyft or Uber costs about $18.

Ride-sharing vehicles are also in better physical condition than most cabs, which tend to be dirty and worn out inside.

It’s been my experience that ride-sharing drivers also seem to be safer than cab drivers, who often race through the streets aggressively, honking, tail-gating and jamming on the brakes repeatedly. Ride-sharing drivers seem to be much calmer.

It’s also easier to get ripped off in a Chicago cab, where the driver may take an unsuspecting tourist on a roundabout route to run up the fare, which is based on miles and time. A ride-sharing fare, on the other hand, is determined before you even step in the car, so there’s no advantage to the driver to take you on a roundabout route.

All financial transactions in a ride-share are handled on your phone’s app, so there’s no cash involved, eliminating the chance of robbery for the driver. Chicago cabs all have credit card readers, but often they don’t work. And some have been compromised by scammers that steal credit card information. Chicago cabs are notorious for this, so much so that a couple of years ago The New York Times wrote a story about it. Our daughter’s card has been replaced several times because of this.

It is convenient when you come out of a hotel or restaurant to see a row of plainly marked cabs lined up ready to take you to your destination, as opposed to waiting five minutes in the rain for a ride-share, then searching for that car — based on its make, model, color and license number — from all of the other traffic on the street. And there have been a few isolated instances where ride-sharing drivers, who don’t undergo rigorous background checks like cab drivers, have assaulted their passengers.

I’d rather use a taxi for a number of reasons, first among them that these guys have a big investment in their cabs and need to make a living, while Uber and Lyft subsidize their drivers and absorb billions of dollars in losses to steal market share from the taxi industry. If cabs were cleaner, drivers were more courteous and credit card payment was secure, I’d use taxis all the time.

Ride-sharing has grown exponentially in cities across the country. In Chicago, there are 66,562 ride-share drivers, compared to 6,999 cabs. Cabbies feel ride-share drivers have an unfair advantage, and they’re probably right, but that’s the free market system doing its heartless thing. When we were in Washington, D.C., last year visiting our son, we took a cab because it was right outside the museum we were exiting. It was 1 p.m. and we were the first fares that driver had that day, and he had been working all morning.

Fortunately, our Storm Lake taxi service doesn’t have the problems that big city cab companies face. The vehicles are in good shape, the drivers friendly and rates are reasonable. Ride-sharing isn’t a factor in small communities, although I think that there’s maybe one Lyft driver in the Storm Lake area.

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