The Blue Cab blues

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By Brett McNeil

The end came last fall in the back seat of a beat-ass Scion XB, trapped in Houby Day parade traffic near Cermak Road. 

After boasting that he never uses GPS or Waze because he knows all the shortcuts, my Blue Cab driver plunged us deep into Berwyn sidestreet gridlock on a trip to Midway Airport. The ride took more than an hour. 

Until that moment I had been a stubborn holdout against the rising tide of rideshare transit. 

I liked that Oak Park had its own homegrown cab culture and was suspicious of a rules-flouting model so openly championed by the unctuous Rahm Emanuel. I disliked the exploitative business model, wondered whether any of these private rides were really covered by insurance, and just gagged real hard on the whole tech-bro, pirate-ship funk that wafts ceaselessly off Uber. 

But escaping my Blue Cab ride-from-hell, I was ready for a change and since last fall have been a regular user of both Uber and Lyft (we're a one-car family) and a much less regular Blue Cab rider. 

I'm not alone.  

Blue Cab's ridership is down and the company lost 20 percent of its fleet between 2016 and 2017, according to Vice President Jim Bennett. They're now operating 120 cabs versus 150 a year ago. 

"It's very hard to compete," Bennett said, ticking off a list of issues faced by cab operators but, for him and others in the taxi business, frustratingly avoided by rideshare firms like Uber. "It's a really unfair playing field.

"The biggest issue is the licensing," he said. "We have to pay fees, the drivers have to pay fees, the vehicles and business have to pay fees to all of the towns we operate in and it's thousands of dollars."

Blue Cab pays $70 per year per cab for an operating license in Oak Park, Bennett said. In Forest Park, where the cab company is based, the cost is $50 per cab per year. And Blue Cab operates in dozens of west suburban communities, all of whom take a cut. 

Lyft and Uber pay no such fees, according to Bennett, who is a third-generation operator of his family's cab company. Blue Cab also pays for state-mandated inspections, which the rideshares similarly avoid, he noted. Insurance costs are different, too. 

Bennett's laments are familiar to anyone who reads the business page: Silicon Valley "disruptors," like Uber and Lyft, run circles around heavily regulated cab companies in the U.S. and overseas. The taxi industry in the States strikes back where it can — highlighting the claimed perils of rideshare patronage at, for instance — but there are some heavy body blows being landed by the upstarts. 

These are evident locally to anyone choosing between a ride with Blue Cab or one with Lyft or Uber. (I've never patronized Red Cab and cannot speak to their service.) 

Hailing a cab is almost always slower than hailing a rideshare. I've sought a Blue Cab and been told the wait would be 30 minutes, while a Lyft, summoned for the same ride, arrived in five minutes. Similarly, the cost of rideshares is almost always less than the cab, sometimes absurdly so.

And for this particular passenger, the shared-ride vehicles are always — and I mean every single time — cleaner and in significantly better condition than any Blue Cab that's ever arrived at my doorstep. 

The issues of cost and ride availability are perhaps a little unfair. Blue Cab's costs are inherently higher than the rideshare companies, and their fleet is nowhere near the combined size of Uber and Lyft. 

But the issue of cleanliness and what I'd call passenger-worthiness is legit, and it's a huge problem for Blue Cab. 

I lived for a time in Indonesia and traveled across Southeast Asia and can say that much of the jalopy Blue Cab fleet would be an embarrassment to the pro taxi drivers of Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City. Those vehicles ought to be an embarrassment for the allegedly pro drivers of Blue Cab, and for the company's owners. 

Bennett acknowledged the problem, which he said relates to the makeup of Blue Cab's fleet. 

"It's an issue for us and we need to up our game in order to compete with the share-rides," he said.

About half of the company's cabs are rentals, according to Bennett, meaning drivers lease the cars from owners who control multiple taxi cabs. These vehicles are often shared among drivers, and they can be up to eight years old. If you've been in one of these cabs, you know they feel — and too often smell — older than that.

Yes, there are complex and hard financial realities at play here — financing newer cars in the face of falling demand prompted by cut-rate competition is an admittedly tough nut; the pricing model for rideshares seems clearly to disadvantage the drivers — and none of Blue Cab's cabbies are getting rich driving a taxi. 

But asking customers to pay higher fares to ride in the back of a dirty beater is a real losing strategy. Hence the 20 percent die-off in Blue Cabs last year. 

Bennett said he recognizes the problem — owner-driven cars tend to be cleaner and better maintained, he said — and thinks he might have a solution. 

"We're looking at changing our model," he said. "If we can't compete, we are thinking of becoming a shared-ride model. This is something we are looking seriously at, possibly by 2018."

That seems like a big change and one that's not exactly guaranteed, what with the long head start by Lyft and Uber. But if it saves Blue Cab as a local business and improves its service, I'd certainly give it a shot. 

Just not to Midway.

Reader Comments

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Rebecca Vnuk  

Posted: March 21st, 2017 3:56 PM

While I don't use ride-share companies specifically for the reasons mentioned here, I also won't use Blue Cab any more. I've never had an issue with scheduling them on time, but the cars! Disgusting. Almost always smelly, dirty, and I will never forget riding in one where I COULD SEE THE ASPHALT through a hole in the back seat floor. A real Flintstones moment. That was the LAST Blue Cab for me.

Pam Fontana  

Posted: March 17th, 2017 8:59 AM

We stopped using Blue Cabs after arranging for an early morning ride to the airport, in advance! When the prescribed time came, no cab. Called them and we were told it would be at least another 30 minutes til one would be available. Got a ride through a different company and would never trust them with my airport ride. Also, their drivers can often be seen driving slowly through town while looking at their cellphones. Dangerous.

John Rice  

Posted: March 16th, 2017 12:28 PM

Great article. I got to know Mr. Bennett at a golf outing and thought he was a great guy. I used to drive for Blue Cab and have no intention of resuming that career.

Kris McCoy  

Posted: March 15th, 2017 8:57 PM

I stopped using Blue Cab 3 years ago after a pickup at O'Hare. The driver promptly got into an accident before even leaving the airport property, and then demanded cash to pay off the other driver. When we refused, he became very irate, drove erratically for the rest of the ride, and then threw our luggage out into the street when we arrived home. But when I reported this horrendous experience to Blue Cab, I was met with a ringing silence. Perhaps their problem isn't Lyft or Uber, or the tatty cabs.

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