Rideshare tickets

Rideshare tickets (Lenny Gilmore / RedEye / June 9, 2014)

Uber X driver Joseph Benavente dropped off a passenger in Old Town for a $5 fare in February. Shortly thereafter, Chicago police ticketed and impounded his car.

It was just two weeks after Mayor Emanuel had proposed—but the City Council had not yet passed—a rideshare ordinance because he said the companies were “operating in a regulatory vacuum” and needed safety regulations to protect consumers.

Benavente said a police officer asked if he was dropping off someone for Uber, and told him ridesharing was illegal.

“I was clearly surprised just because everyone uses it,” said Benavente, 25, of Logan Square. “I don’t get how something this large could be illegal, and something that’s so out in the open. It’s not like we’re brewing moonshine or something like distributing it underground.”

Benavente was one of at least 16 Uber X and Lyft drivers who were ticketed and had their cars impounded from January through March in various neighborhoods including Bucktown, Wicker Park, River North, Lakeview, South Loop, near Wrigley Field and outside the United Center, according to copies of tickets and vehicle impoundment reports RedEye received in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The tickets were written for operating as unlicensed public passenger vehicles. The city has said there are anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 rideshare drivers operating in Chicago.

The drivers were slapped with a $2,000 fine, a $150 tow fee and a $20-per-day storage fee, totaling more than $34,000 collectively. Both Uber and Lyft paid the fines and fees so drivers could get their cars out of the tow yard.

EXTRA: Where do taxi drivers, rideshare drivers, passengers and politicians stand on new regulations?

However nearly all the 16 tickets that went to Administrative Hearings—the quasi-judicial body that handles hearings on citations including parking and red-light tickets—were dismissed because the city attorney chose not to pursue hearings to enforce the tickets while the city worked on drafting regulations.

“Chicago police officers issued violations because the rideshare drivers, while unregulated, were still in violation” for operating an unlicensed public passenger vehicle, said Mika Stambaugh, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.

But had the city informed drivers they were in violation? The companies were aware of the current regulations, a city spokeswoman said, adding that the city “has always been supportive of additional transportation options and was working on an ordinance to bring rideshare companies into compliance.”

The cab industry has said rideshare companies provided the same services but were not held accountable to the same rules as taxis. Medallion owners, taxi affiliates and cab drivers sued the city in February for failing to enforce its taxi laws on rideshare drivers.

The City Council’s ordinance, approved last month and set to go into effect in late August, will require rideshare companies to get licensed and provide insurance, while some drivers must obtain chauffeur licenses. Drivers also will be prohibited from picking up passengers at the airports and McCormick Place. In addition, it mandates driver training, background checks and vehicle inspections.

Stambaugh would not directly answer whether rideshare drivers currently are subject to tickets before the new regulations begin or whether there will be a grace period for drivers to comply with the new regulations once the ordinance takes effect.

“The enforcement of ticketing rideshare drivers for being unlicensed public passenger vehicles is second to finalizing the TNP [transportation network providers] ordinance,” she said in an email.

While details of the ordinance still are being worked out, transportation experts who spoke to RedEye disagreed about the previous ticketing of the 16 rideshare drivers.

Joseph Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University, said he was surprised the city wrote tickets before the ordinance was even approved.

“It seems double-handed to have a regulatory process but then shoot from the hip before that process is complete,” he said.

Hani Mahmassani, director of Northwestern University’s Transportation Center, said the tickets issued to rideshare drivers were appropriate because the drivers fell under existing regulations. His reasoning is that rideshare services are on par with cabs since they give rides to the public for money.

When asked whether Uber thought the tickets should have been issued, Uber spokeswoman Lauren Altmin said, “This occurred in a regulatory vacuum. The city agreed the regulations didn’t fit and that’s why the new framework and ordinance did pass the City Council.”

Lyft in March said it did not believe drivers were violating any current city law.

Drivers like Brandon James were caught off guard by the tickets issued to them.

James dropped off his Lyft passenger in front of the United Center last January when he was ticketed.

“I was really confused [as] to what was going on,” said James, 28, of Evanston.

He had been driving for Lyft for about a month before his citation, and said he had no idea that giving rides was something that would warrant a ticket or tow.

He continued to drive for a few months until the spring, when he got a new job. “I had a lot of fun doing it. The legality issue made it a little shady,” he said.

Overall, James said the citation was worth the hassle because driving for Lyft helped him earn money while he was between jobs. “If I would have had to pay that fine, I wouldn’t think it was worthy of the risk,” he said.

Benavente appreciated the quick response and financial help from Uber, as well.

“They’re super supportive and gracious enough to take care of the whole thing,” he said.