On a quiet summer night two years ago, Shoiv Hasan picked up a passenger bound for Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. When Mr. Hasan stopped his taxi, the man robbed him and slashed his face with a knife. It took three months for the Pakistani immigrant to return to the job.
His story is not unique. Homicides, robberies, and assaults make driving a taxi one of the nation's most hazardous professions. In Chicago and big cities like it, drivers routinely refuse to answer calls from troubled neighborhoods or pick up passengers they deem suspicious.
But this week, Chicago's City Council overwhelmingly approved an ordinance that would prohibit drivers from refusing business. Supporters, particularly African-Americans, argue that many cabbies discriminate against huge segments of the city's population.
The vote is the most significant milestone in a long-standing debate on the nature of taxi service in US cities. It pits hard-working immigrants against some of the nation's most economically fragile citizens, and raises questions about how services are delivered in America's increasingly stratified cities.
"I understand that cities like Chicago want to make sure drivers serve the public," says Alfred Lagasse of the International Taxi and Livery Association. "But the laws have to be contrived in a way that drivers aren't penalized for using good business sense."
Chicago's ordinance will require cab companies to place a percentage of their fleets in underserved neighborhoods, and will impose $750 fines against drivers who fail to answer street hails or radio-dispatched calls. It also lets the city add 1,000 taxi medallions.
In a show of defiance, the city's 16,000 drivers staged a one-day strike Tuesday that removed about 80 percent of the city's cabs from the streets and left commuters stranded at rush hour.
"Everybody wants to talk about violence and racism, but it's really an economic issue," says Cometas Dilanjian, general manager of the Checker Taxi Association in Chicago. "There is not the kind of business in some neighborhoods to warrant putting cabs out there."
A lack of demand for transportation service in some South and West Chicago neighborhoods, Mr. Dilanjian notes, recently prompted the Chicago Transportation Authority to cancel some bus routes there. The cab industry, he adds, has urged the city to create low-cost licenses that would allow some drivers to work solely in underserved areas.
But some Chicagoans view the situation on a personal level. Charles Lott, a young African-American, says he's watched cabs roll by him even in safer neighborhoods on the city's North Side. He notes that the ordinance requires cab companies to install glass partitions in their vehicles.
"Once they've addressed the safety concerns," Mr. Lott says, "they should be forced to pick up anybody who wants service."
Dorothy Tillman, a Chicago alderman who proposed the ordinance, says the lack of such a law in the past constituted a de facto form of racism. "Just because a person lives on the South Side of Chicago, that does not mean that person is going to kill someone," Ms. Tillman says.
In recent years, cities across the nation have struggled with the same issue. The controversy has exploded in New York and Boston as black officials in those cities, including former New York Mayor David Dinkins, have watched cab drivers ignore their raised hands.
Although most cities have laws aimed at preventing discrimination, Mr. Lagasse says, enforcement is difficult. It's nearly impossible to judge whether a cab driver refused to pick somebody up, or simply failed to see them. In Chicago's case, he adds, it will be difficult to determine how many cabs are in the city's poorer neighborhoods at any given time.
At the council meeting Wednesday, cab drivers showed up in force to protest the ordinance. It was a rare show of unity from an industry whose workers are often foreign-born immigrants with little political savvy. Unless steps are taken to protect them, drivers plan to vote on whether to join the Teamsters Union.
Diane Santucci, a 10-year veteran, says she's considering a career change. She was robbed last year by a passenger who asked to be taken to a well-known drug corridor on the South Side. If the city wants to ensure service to such areas, she says, then it should hire cabbies as city workers with full benefits.
"Otherwise," she says, "we'll basically be in the business of giving rides to drug dealers."