Last ride for Chicago’s taxis? Ride-sharing, pandemic taking its toll

WGN Investigates
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CHICAGO — Chicago’s taxi industry has been struggling for years due to increased competition from ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft. Now, the coronavirus pandemic has delivered another devastating blow and lead some insiders to question if the industry will survive.

In order to drive a taxi in Chicago, you need a city-issued medallion. And this time last year there were 3,433 active medallions. About half of the city’s 7,000 taxis were on the road.

Currently, the number has fallen to 648 with 2,151 medallions surrendered to the city.

“There really is not enough to sustain even the small amount of drivers that are out there right now,” attorney Furqan Mohammed said. He is a medallion owner and taxi industry expert.

“I think the ones that can find something else are leaving the industry in waves,” he said. “It’s speeding up the demise.”

Blue Ribbon Taxi Association has about 230 cars in its fleet. Today, only five are on the road because business has fallen so dramatically during the pandemic.  

“I think the biggest thing that comes to our mind is survival,” president of Blue Ribbon Taxi Sabir Waheed said. “The way things are going right now, there is no hope.” 

Taxi drivers told WGN Investigates they’re waiting hours to pick up a single fare at O’Hare Airport or outside Union Station. A ride from the airport to downtown may pay $50. But those are few and far between. 

“The airport is not moving at all,” president of Globe Taxi Association Shoib Hasan said.

Some drivers said they’re now sleeping in their cars at O’Hare so as not to lose their place in line.

With the sharp decline in business, medallion prices are tumbling too. They now trade for around $25,000. That is down from $290,000 in 2015, according to city records.

“The value of the medallions is directly related to the business out on the street,” Waheed said. “Unless that business comes back, the value will not go up.”

The city is offering to reimburse drivers up to $200 for personal protective equipment.

But many say City Hall needs to do more if it wants the industry to survive.

 “They’re a resilient bunch but you just can’t take hit after hit and expect to keep standing up,” Mohammed said.

In a statement, a city spokesman said “throughout the pandemic, the City has taken a number of steps to assist public vehicles, and we are holding ongoing conversations to further these efforts to continue supporting the taxicab industry.”

As for that PPE reimbursement program, he said 24 owners have applied but that number may increase if the economy continues to improve and more taxis return to the streets.

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