Norshore Cab is among the Evanston cab companies protesing "poachng" by American Taxi. Photo by Mary Mumbrue

At the last two City Council meetings, dozens of taxi cabs drivers lined up to beg City Council for help in combating what they described as the predatory practices of American Taxi. Proposed amendments to the City’s taxi cab ordinance failed to successfully frame the issue, though, and rather than an extensive overhaul Council instead passed a modest change that will increase the fine for certain actions and called for more enforcement of existing rules.

The issue concerns what aldermen and several members of American Taxi representatives called “prearranged rides.” Under Evanston ordinances, there are 140 licensed cab drivers in Evanston, and only licensed cabs are allowed to pick up fares within the Evanston City limits. Limiting cab licenses is designed to insure that cabs operating here have enough business to make a living, while keeping a steady supply of taxis on the streets and available for call. The question, left unanswered after months of debate, is whether, when a citizen calls for a cab, the cab company must send an Evanston-licensed cab or whether it is permissible for the company to send a cab licensed in Lincolnwood, Wilmette or elsewhere, into Evanston to pick up the fare.

The problem is exacerbated by technological changes. Steve O’Sullivan, the City’s licenses and measures inspector in charge of taxis, said that most cabs are now equipped with GPS technology, so dispatchers know where the vehicles are. When a dispatcher receives a call, he said, the dispatcher generally sends the call to the cab geographically closest to the passenger. “They stay where the business is,” he said, and the business is in Evanston. He reported seeing non-Evanston cabs lingering in the Ryan Field parking lot, near the Ecology Center, and on the streets.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, agreed, saying that she and her constituents saw cabs lingering in the neighborhoods near Northwestern, sometimes with engines running, sometime sleeping, and sometimes raising suspicion. “Northwestern students provide a huge market for cruising cabs,” she said.

American Taxi is clearly viewed as the villain by the other cab companies. Mike Decker of Northshore Cab, and a member of the taxicab advisory board, said, “Every cab company is on the opposite side of American Taxi in this battle.” American Taxi has seven Evanston licenses, but a Chicago area fleet that exceeds 1,000 vehicles. Numerous cab drivers said American Taxi routinely sends non-Evanston cabs to respond to Evanston calls.

American Taxi defended its practices, saying that customers choose to call American because they prefer the clean cabs and superior service it provides. Several World War II veterans spoke, praising American’s offer of free transport to and from the airport for veterans participating in the Honor Flight program that brings veterans to Washington, DC.

Russ Abel, general manager of the Hilton Orrington, said he wanted to provide hotel customers with round-trip options to and from the airport, and necessarily the return trip requires an Evanston pick-up.

Jeff Smith, attorney for the Evanston Taxi Owners, said that Evanston licensed cabs “played by the rules and invested” in Evanston and their business, and that a pre-arranged ride exception “would swallow the rule.” He likened the exception to buying seven tickets to Wrigley Field and then trying to bring “700 of your friends” to the game.

The ordinance presented, though, seemed to confuse everyone.

“The way the whole thing reads is really confusing,” said Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward. Repeatedly, aldermen asked whether or not the ordinance covered pre-arranged rides and rarely were they certain one way or the other.

“I’m not sure voting on this [ordinance as written] is even reasonable as a rational body,” said Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward.

City Attorney Grant Farrar responded that Council was “deliberating [and] is really trying to come to grips with what pre-arrangement means.” He described Council’s debate as “drilling down to the essence of the proposed amendments.”

“It’s been a real wrestling match” to figure out what the ordinance is trying to accomplish, said Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward. “Even the presentation has created confusion… I think there’s a real problem in drafting [by City staff]… We don’t know where we’re going.”

“We need to define what we mean by pre-arranged rides,” said Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward. The proposed ordinance made no attempt to define the term or to address internet solicitation or other technological changes since 1980 when the current ordinance was passed. “I find it very unfortunate that we’re not able to complete the business of the day. … but what we’ve been given is a big mess,” she added

Council had difficulty even framing the issue, with Ald. Jean-Baptiste arguing that the issue was the penalty while others said it was the pre-arranged ride exception. Ald. Jean-Baptiste moved passage of the ordinance as written, with two amendments cutting two of the more confusing passages.

When Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, called the question and it came time to vote, confusion deepened as Ald. Jean-Baptiste had left the room and no one was certain exactly what they were voting on. When he returned, and described his amendments and motion, the measure failed 7-2.

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, then proposed a limited change that left the 1980 ordinance intact other than to increase the penalty for “poaching” passengers in Evanston to $750. His motion passed 9-0.