The Inscrutable City | Essay | Chicago Reader

The Inscrutable City 

A cabbie can drop you off in front of the Madison Stret Metra entrance, but if he picks you up there, he's breaking the law.

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At five o'clock on a Friday afternoon the sidewalk along Madison in front of the main entrance to the Metra station is bustling. Commuters pour out of the doors and start looking for taxis. Waiting is a long line of them, dropping off fares and eagerly picking up new ones.

It looks like a perfectly normal afternoon routine--hundreds of people heading home to the suburbs while hundreds more come home to the city. Except that it's illegal for cabs to pick up fares on this block of Madison just west of the Loop--even though they drop off fares there all the time. "I told the city it's crazy," says George Kasp, a cabdriver. "But they won't listen."

For the past couple years Kasp has been waging a one-man crusade to make it legal for cabs to pick up fares on the block. "I've been driving a cab for 31 years, and there's always been a cabstand outside the Metra station," he says. "Why wouldn't you have a cabstand there? That's where the people are who want to get a cab, that's where the cabbies are who want to pick up people."

But in July 2001 the city closed the stand and posted no-parking and no-standing signs. "For a while they put traffic aides on the corner warning pedestrians that it's illegal to get a cab on Madison," says Kasp.

"If you picked someone up they wrote you a ticket. I asked one aide, 'Why can't we pick up fares here?' He said, 'There's too much traffic.'"

Kasp says the policy causes more traffic problems than it solves, particularly in the afternoon. Two or three traffic aides stand on Madison during the morning rush hour, from 7 to 9:30 AM, directing commuters who want cabs to Clinton and Canal, the north-south streets to the west and east of the station, where cabs are allowed to wait. But there are no traffic aides during the afternoon rush. "It's a mess," he says. "You have hundreds of people coming out of the station and rushing over to a cab on Madison, 'cause that's where the cabs are letting people off. They say, 'Hey, I need a cab.' And you're supposed to tell them, 'No, go to Canal or Clinton,' which is a block away. They say, 'What? Huh? I need a cab.' Meanwhile, you have cars honking and buses coming."

Kasp stewed about the closed stand for almost a year. Then in the summer of 2002 he started writing letters to newspapers, to the police superintendent, the local alderman and committeeman, the mayor, the city commissioners. On November 29 someone finally responded. Edward Lanuti, commander of the police department's traffic section, sent him a letter.

"It is unfortunate that this matter has caused you any inconveniences or distress, but the present cab stand designation and sign setup has been determined by the Chicago Department of Transportation," Lanuti wrote. "If you still feel that additional space needs to be allocated for cab stands, please forward your suggestions to the City's Transportation Department."

By the end of that year Kasp had some 2,000 signatures from cabbies on petitions asking the city to bring back the cabstand. He sent copies of the petitions to the city clerk, who sent them to the transportation department, which forwarded them to the City Council's committee on transportation. "I got a call from a traffic committee aide," says Kasp. "She told me to call the local alderman."

Kasp eventually met with 42nd Ward alderman Burt Natarus, who got him a meeting with Don Grabowski, a traffic engineer in the transportation department and the person responsible for removing the cabstand. The two met in Grabowski's office in March. "Don said there was too much traffic on Madison to have a cabstand," says Kasp. "I said, 'It's five and a half lanes wide, and it's always had a cabstand.' He said he wanted to 'redirect the flow of people.' I said, 'Don, there's a natural flow. People come out of the station and walk to Madison looking for a cab--because that's where the cabs are.'"

They'd been going at it for about 15 minutes when the door opened and Natarus walked in. "He says, 'Whatever you guys decide is fine with me,'" says Kasp. "Then he says, 'Don, I got to ask you about Lake Shore Drive.' And he starts talking about this other traffic thing. Grabowski listens and says, 'OK, alderman.' That's it. He gets ready to leave. I said, 'Alderman, what about the cabstand?' He says, 'I told you, whatever you guys do is OK with me.'"

Natarus left, but ten seconds later popped back in. "He says, 'I got a good joke for you,'" says Kasp. "He started in about this husband and wife who want to better their lives by moving to France. He's drawing out all the details--the woman becomes a chef and the man does something else and they hire a chauffeur and the chauffeur ends up screwing the wife. I can't remember the punch line--I'm bad at telling jokes. But it was hilarious. We were roaring. He walked out, leaving us laughing."

Once they stopped laughing, they settled on a compromise. The city would post two traffic aides in the afternoon to direct commuters to the cabstands on Clinton and Canal. "They did that for two weeks," says Kasp. Then the aides disappeared.

"The police said they had a shortage of manpower."

Kasp kept pressing the city, and in August he got another meeting with Natarus. "Burt told me, 'You're the only one concerned about this,'" he says. "I said, 'I'm not--there are 2,000 other drivers who signed the petition.' Burt says, 'What if we ask the police not to write tickets for picking up in front of the station?' I said I could live with that. Burt said, 'Meeting adjourned.'"

Whatever Natarus promised, Kasp says, "you still have police writing tickets for picking up fares there. The last I talked to Grabowski was in August, and he told me, 'I'm not going to kowtow to the cab companies.'"

Kasp says he just wants the city to do in the afternoon what it does in the morning--post traffic aides to direct commuters to the cabs on Canal and Clinton. That way the pedestrians won't ask cabs to pick them up illegally on Madison, and cabbies will know they won't lose fares by waiting at the stands on Canal and Clinton. "The realistic solution is to put cabstands back where the people want to take cabs," he says. "But the traffic aides would be better than nothing."

When I called Grabowski for comment he referred me to Brian Steele, the transportation department's spokesman. Steele explained that the department closed the Madison cabstand for safety reasons. "A lot of cabs would pick up passengers on the right side of the street and then cut off four lanes of traffic to get to the far left lane to turn south on Clinton," he says. "That was a dangerous driving situation."

Steele says the current arrangement seems to be working well. "If you turn to the left or turn to the right you're 100 feet away from wherever the cabs are," he says. "I don't think it's a challenge to find a cab. I know of no complaints from commuters."

Natarus (who doesn't remember his joke or the punch line) says the only one still complaining is Kasp. "We spent months and months dealing with this cabdriver," he says. "This is a traffic hazard. We came up with a compromise. We told the police to be a little more ecumenical. I'm sorry, but that's the best we can do."

So after two years of calls, letters, and meetings, things are pretty much the way they used to be. "You still have people asking cabbies to pick them up on Madison, and you still have cabbies dropping off fares there," says Kasp. "And you still have cabbies cutting across four lanes of traffic to turn onto Clinton. I don't know where the city comes up with this stuff. They pretend they solved something, but nothing's been solved."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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