CHICAGO — Swarms of ride-share drivers stop at O'Hare International Airport for an average of 15 rides a minute, packing roads heading into the airport and likely causing even longer wait times for their own customers in the process.
The ride-share industry is growing at a rapid pace at airports across the country. At O'Hare, the number of trips quadrupled over the last three years from 160,000 a month to over 650,000, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation. Despite so many drivers headed to the airport, customers wait between 20 and 30 minutes on average, with some telling WGN Investigates they waited as long as an hour.
This rapid growth is also reflected in a crowded parking lot near the airport dedicated to ride share drivers. In theory, the Transportation Network Provider Lot (TNP Lot) serves as a staging area for drivers until a customer requests a vehicle. For the last few months, drivers have been complaining about traffic, fights and crashes in the lot and the area surrounding it.
"I’ve seen fist fights break out, people get wild," Eli Martin, a driver, said.
Martin, who's also a member of Chicago Rideshare Advocates, said he's been complaining about the lot for months. Traffic stretching out of it can seem to back up for a mile, slowing down drivers headed to pick up customers.
WGN Investigates obtained driver receipts that detail those waits, including some that indeed took nearly an hour. What’s worse is when a customer looks at estimated pick-up times, ride-share apps don't take traffic back-ups into account. So what's first listed as a five-minute wait can take much longer.
"It’s on us then to call them and say, 'Hey, I know what the app says, it’s no fault on my own, it’s going to be 25 or 30 minutes. Would you please wait for me?'" Martin said.
A fix hasn’t been that easy. City officials and the ride-share companies have known about issues at the lot for months, but still no results, and the city should have the funds to do something. Chicago collects about $5 for each ride-share pickup and drop off at O’Hare. If they estimate there’s about 650,000 a month — that’s $39 million a year.
"I think we need to look at everything because O’Hare is one of the largest hubs in North America," Ald. Matt O'Shea (19th Ward), another member of the committee, said.
Chicago’s Department of Aviation has been studying ways to fix the problem. The airport wants to install a traffic light at the intersection near the staging area and provide a second lot for drivers.
As the days tick on, the list of ride share vehicles grows. By now they well outnumber the 7,000 Chicago cabs, with 65,000 ride share drivers registered citywide.
"There has to be some sort of limit on the amount of Uber and Lyft at the airport," Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th Ward), a leader of the City Council's Aviation Committee, said.
Martin agrees a cap on drivers at the airport may help ease some of the congestion, and New York has already implemented a similar limit. No word on if that’s an issue that will be studied by Chicago’s City Council, or when a new lot for drivers could be built.
“We have such a large program of construction going on that we can’t interfere with other projects that are coming up,” aviation department COO Kieran Sheridan said.
After WGN Investigates spoke to officials about the issue for weeks, local aldermen said they were working on a temporary light to go up as soon as possible.
Uber and Lyft both sent statements saying they are working with the aviation department on a fix.
From Charity Jackson, Uber Public Affairs:
“Uber has been providing travelers at O’Hare with a safe, reliable transportation option for the past four years. During that time, we have worked closely with the airport to respond to the evolving needs of riders and drivers in an effort to create a smooth experience for customers from pickup to drop-off. We look forward to continuing our conversations with the airport and creating processes that efficiently address the needs of passengers and drivers.”
And from Lyft Communications Manager Campbell Matthews:
“We recognize the current challenges at the O'Hare rideshare staging lot and are in active conversations with officials at the Chicago Department of Aviation. We're eager to continue working in partnership with the CDA team to identify solutions that work for the airport while also providing the best possible experience for drivers and riders.”