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.

  • I’ve never used it but TaxiMagic became Curb and it seems to work with dozens of taxi associations around the country.

  • The ordinance requires an RFP. So you can eat your hat right now.

  • You can rate drivers by complaining about their (legitimate) faults: unsafe driving, not responding to your request to take certain routes or turning down the music volume, etc.

  • “impossible 15 years ago: Divvy bike sharing”

    There’s been bike-sharing in some form or another around the world for longer than 15 years.

  • No one is hating Uber here. I hear what Elliott is saying. Uber drivers surely have freedom to drive when they want, say, between shifts at other low-paying jobs.

    No one has made it easier to hail a ride in a car better than Uber. But with that fame has come a lot of news about Uber’s poor business practices.

    Here’s the latest, about roping Uber drivers into subprime auto loans:

  • Chris Chaten

    Ease of use, technical innovations like fare estimators and variable pricing, and product variability (Uber is adding ability to request car with child seat, for example) are all components to why a private solution like Uber is highly likely to persist as the winner. Eventually, you may see kayak like solutions that aggregate Lyft, Uber, etc. An app that merely does Uber 1.0 for yellow cabs is going to be five years behind at launch.

  • Adam Welsch

    When Uber tells me sorry nothing available, I have used the “Flash cab” app which works well for the most part but there have been times the app crashes when I am trying to use it. There is also a app from “Chicago carriage” app but I have never been able to get a cab from it. My guess is that the cab companies don’t have enough dough to get the best app developers.

  • Chris Chaten

    And you could place a phone call to get a cab or go on vrbo to book a house…mobile makes these things scalable and convenient.

  • Chris Chaten

    Here’s a good example of why a single method app is not likely to win – a one-stop shot allows the user to shop for availability. This is a specific example, but fact is the private company can respond to these market forces. A heavily regulated taxi industry can’t / doesn’t.

    From the Uber blog last year:

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    But it is also possible if the city is losing tax money on fares that are no longer on taxi rides, but are uber/lyft rides, a single app will make it possible to collect that tax. Do uber and lyft have taxi meters?

  • duppie

    I never heard about that last one (subprime lending). Do you have a link?

    It goes back to my first point: Government should regulate the market such the it operates safely and fairly. If this is a problem, we need to solve it. But the city creating a universal taxi app is not the solution.

  • duppie

    There is a $.30 Chicago transit tax & accessibility fee added to each ride. It is specified on your receipt.

    Uber has taximeters in the form of the an app on the drivers phone.

  • duppie

    How does that work? Do I need to call 311?

  • rohmen

    Uber definitely has a poor track record with regards to how it deals with its drivers. My favorite was when they issued a memo to uberx drivers in Chicago stating that it was now okay for them to pick up passengers from airports, though such an action still clearly violated City ordinances and would have resulted in drivers being issued tickets:

    It’s hard to trust a company/industry to regulate itself when the industry leader has shown a willingness to completely ignore the law if they see a profit opportunity.

    Uber’s free to challenge the status quo, but you don’t do it on the backs of your workers.

  • duppie

    It all started with the infamous “Witte Fietsen Plan” in Amsterdam circa 1969. See page 42 and on for a history of bikesharing

  • BlueFairlane

    The Wal-Mart analogy is a good one. I used to live in the South and saw many towns evaporate completely almost the instant the Wal-Mart opened. That’s where I worry Uber will ultimately take us. In 20 years, there may very well not be a cab industry.

  • No need for the city to pay anybody to do this. A more elegant solution is already becoming available. A company named TripThru is now finishing a backbone hub to interconnect all apps/taxi fleets/limo fleets. The city doesn’t need to go into competition with app makers or fleets that have their own apps, or with the makers of fleet dispatch software. TripThru is described here:

  • jeff wegerson

    Creating something new tends to be easier than changing the existing. Remember the when Air Traffic Controllers were dependent upon ancient IBM computers well beyond their life expectancy?

    Remember that like any bureaucracy, private or public, some parts often work better than others. And as Fred above said they will likely send the contract out to an outside source.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Is the .30 the same tax taxis pay? I’m thinking the city wants more and an app is an easy way to collect more tax and faster too.

  • Wewilliewinkleman
  • johnny

    The city should simply license Hailo. Before abruptly pulling out of the Chicago market a few weeks ago, it had a large user base and was a great service. I used it everyday for business and every single driver I asked said that they liked the service. Many said that 25% of their rides came from Hilo.

    However, that would be too logical. Since Ari Emanuel (the mayor’s brother) has an ownership interest in Uber, I can only imagine the real goal here is to spend the next year taking bids to build a municipal taxi hailing app that will ultimately be no better than Hailo. In the meantime, Uber grows it’s user base everyday and will further dominate the Chicago market. Makes perfect sense when you follow the money.



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