CHICAGO — A taxicab is a car remade by government, modified dozens of ways by edicts within subsections of articles of the city’s taxi code.
“Everywhere on this car has been regulated,” John Henry Assabil says. “Look at it!”
He throws up his arms in the direction of his gold-colored 2012 Ford Transit Connect. The car’s medallion number — 813 — is painted in black plain gothic figures (must be black plain gothic figures) on the driver’s-side hood, on both passenger doors and, for good measure, on the rear. Inside, there is a camera mounted over the rear-view mirror, a dispatch radio bolted to the console, a credit-card reader snapped to the passenger headrest.
From the back of Assabil’s seat hangs a sign — lamination required — spelling out the city’s fare structure: $3.25 for the base rate, $2 for the airport departure/arrival tax, $50 vomit cleanup fee. Everywhere, there are mandatory stickers. “That one costs a dollar,” Assabil says of a window decal reminding passengers to LOOK! before opening the door into the possible path of cyclists and pedestrians. “The fine for not having it is $100.”
Then there are the holes. Several have been drilled into the roof to mount the top light that distinguishes cabs from other cars at a distance. Another has been punched right into the hood, bolting down the palm-size metal plate — the “medallion” itself — that gives Assabil the right to operate this cab, one of 6,904 in Chicago.
Every one of these requirements is a point of contention in the escalating battle between the cab industry and tech start-ups such as Uber and Lyft, which threaten to upend a pact that has long existed in Chicago and other cities: In exchange for all of this regulation, taxis have for decades held a government-backed monopoly. At the center of that bargain — and the debate over what form of transportation best serves the public — is the medallion.
Assabil, a 62-year-old immigrant from Ghana, and his wife own four. Each one grants him a license, which he’s free to sell, to operate a single cab among the limited supply in the city. As of last summer, a medallion in Chicago fetched around $350,000, a sum that would buy a comfortable condo overlooking Lake Michigan — and one that buyers often finance as they would a mortgage.
In New York, taxi medallions have topped $1 million. In Boston, $700,000. In Philadelphia, $400,000. In Miami, $300,000. Where medallions exist, they have outperformed even the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. In Chicago, their value has doubled since 2009.
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