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Single, Universal Taxi App Could Level Playing Field

406/365 - Taxi!
Chicago may create an app that can dispatch a ride to you as easily as Uber or Lyft. Photo: Mike Travis

The City of Chicago wants to set up a centralized, online taxi dispatching system that would accept anyone's request for a cab. This new tool could let the local taxi industry catch up to the user-responsiveness of increasingly popular taxi alternatives like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar. Those companies' easy-to-use apps, and sometimes lower fares, are tempting riders out of conventional taxicabs

Taxis and ride-sourced trips are among the many transportation choices that makes it possible to live richly without a car in Chicago. Even though these trips can be expensive, they can also be a convenient adjunct to transit, walking, or bicycling trips.

Currently, numerous apps crowd the market for Chicagoans who want to flag cabs, each of which can only hail cabs from particular taxi brands. Even though competition is usually good, this fractured market hurts both customers and taxicab drivers. People hailing taxis on the street don't have to memorize six different hand signals that each flag a different company's cabs -- given the degree of regulation applied to cabs, the first cab to arrive is usually just as good as any other. Nor should people hailing taxis online have to download six different apps to find just one cab.

The fragmentation has also made life difficult for taxi drivers in recent years, both in Chicago and across the United States. Ride-sourcing providers can summon fleets of drivers far larger than individual cab companies, and gives both drivers and customers a chance to "look around the corner" to find cabs or fares. Meanwhile, cabs and customers are left to either just show up at the right place at the right time, or use phone dispatchers that give a lot of power to a few large cab associations. A centralized taxi dispatching system, with an easy-to-use app, could put the taxi industry -- and especially non-affiliated cab drivers -- on better footing when competing for the same passengers.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, along with 19 aldermen, introduced an ordinance last month that would authorize Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection commissioner Maria Guerra Lapacek both to build such a system and to require every taxicab to participate. BACP could assess fees for its use, but wouldn't be able to ban cab drivers from using other apps.

United Taxi Drivers Community Council representative Peter Ali Enger is confident that centralized dispatch will help taxi drivers. He told the Tribune that "if we had this type of system before, I guarantee you the ride-share companies would not have made such inroads."

BACP wants feedback from the public about what capabilities and options are needed in its new "Centralized Taxicab Electronic Dispatch System," and is accepting feedback via email until November 14. If the ordinance passes, the department will then solicit bids to build the app.

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