OpEd: No more ‘hailing while Black’: How ride-share companies have improved the lives of Black Chicagoans

Chicago Tribune

By Larry Ivory, CEO of the Illinois State Black Chamber of Commerc

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to hail a cab in the Loop and watched it zoom past me, only to see that same cab pull over halfway down the block for someone else. Far too many of my Black friends and family members have had the same humiliating, dehumanizing experience.

Even former first lady Michelle Obama spoke about this back in 2014 when she explained how, before moving to D.C., President Barack Obama had his “share of troubles catching cabs” as a Black man on the South Side.

The Chicago Tribune’s recent editorial on ride-shares and taxi cabs (“We were wrong to abandon taxicabs for ride-shares and Chicago now needs to find a fix,” Sept. 14) was a painful reminder of that time when Chicago cabs refused to serve the South or West sides, or commonly bypassed Black hailers. The piece alludes to this by vaguely nodding to “issues with cabs refusing to offer service in certain neighborhoods.” Sorry, but it goes a lot deeper than that, and it’s offensive to diminish the racism and experiences of communities of color.

In reality, this mistreatment was such a common occurrence that there was a phrase to describe it: “hailing while Black.” It captures the uncertainty of never being quite sure if you’ll have a way home, simply because of the color of your skin.

Even though the Black community in Chicago was extremely vocal about the taxicab industry not serving their neighborhoods and residents, the problem of hailing while Black persisted for far too long.

That changed when ride-sharing companies came to Chicago and solved the lack of mobility and access residents had faced across the South and West sides. We went from living in public transportation and taxicab deserts to having reliable options for getting to and from work, visiting family, going to a doctor’s appointment or even grocery shopping.

It took a prominent Black voice in Chicago media to put this into perspective when Laura Washington wrote in 2016 about her frustrations of hailing while Black and how refreshing it was to see an Uber driver “cheerfully” take her to areas where cabs would never venture. According to her research, traditional taxi cabs had made a mere 350,000 trips to or from underserved Chicago communities between October 2015 and March 2016, compared with Uber’s 3.9 million in the same time frame.

Another citywide survey found that 66% of Black Chicagoans felt that taxis “deliberately” refused to pick them up, and just 42% of Black Chicagoans surveyed said they were “satisfied” with the taxi industry. Conversely, 72% of white residents said they felt satisfied with their experiences with cabs.

Let’s also not forget the blatant inequities that exist in order to drive a taxi. Cabdrivers are required to have a medallion, which can often cost upward of $6,000. With ride-share, people need nothing more than a clean car and a clean driving record to be able to make extra income.

What’s more, ride-sharing allows you to literally share your ride with others. People can track your location to ensure you make it to your destination safely, while companies also require background checks and other safety measures for drivers.

To this day, ride-share companies continue to uplift Black and brown communities and support our economic development. They donated thousands of free rides to help vulnerable Chicagoans get vaccinated. They’ve created tens of thousands of jobs for Black and brown residents, and those jobs pay well: Median earnings for drivers in Chicago are up to $36 per hour for some companies — and that doesn’t even include tips.

As the city opens back up and the driver workforce among ride-sharing companies is depressed, demand for rides has outpaced availability of drivers. To solve this, ride-share companies are incentivizing more drivers to return to the platforms, encouraging them with wages that are providing a much-needed stimulus. It’s a short-term solution that will hopefully resolve itself with these incentives.

As we continue to think critically about transportation in our city and increasing access for the folks who need it most, we cannot afford to understate the decades of mistreatment Black Chicagoans endured because of the taxi industry and how ride-shares helped level the playing field. While it’s easy to look back through rose-colored glasses, we all know it’s not the reality of history. We will not so easily forget how we were treated, and we urge others not to either.