It was a somber scene outside New York’s City Hall on Wednesday afternoon. Four coffins sat at the foot of the steps; one by one, taxi drivers covered them with white flowers, before assembling on the steps and shouting for the city to “stop Uber’s greed” and “stop making us slaves.” It was the second such gathering in two months, as drivers and their advocates mourned another suicide that they attribute to the rise of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. That sudden increase in the number of for-hire vehicles on the city’s streets, they claim, has made it impossible for drivers to earn a decent living.
On March 16, Nicanor Ochisor, a 65-year-old yellow cab driver, took his own life in his Queens home. According to his family and friends, he had been drowning financially as his prized taxi medallion, on which he had hoped to retire, plummeted in value. The circumstances surrounding Ochisor’s death were upsettingly familiar: In February, driver Douglas Schifter shot himself outside City Hall after posting a lengthy statement to Facebook blaming politicians for letting the streets get so saturated. According to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a nonprofit group that advocates for drivers, at least two other drivers have committed suicide since December in response to mounting financial pressures.
At Wednesday’s rally, Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of NYTWA, described the situation as “a living nightmare.” The assembled drivers echoed her sentiment. Noureddine Afsi said he began driving a yellow cab in 2001 when a friend said it would be easier money than his job in retail. “You could work nine hours and easily make $200 in a day,” he recalled. “Now, you’re lucky if you make $50 or $60.” Beresford Simmons, who has been driving a yellow cab for more than 50 years, expressed a similar frustration: At 71 years old, he said, he had just had heart surgery and was on dialysis—and he was in no financial position to take a break from driving. “We have guys at home who are losing their houses,” he said. “I know cab drivers who are homeless today.”
The anguish and anger on display at City Hall offer an unsettling look at the cost of disrupting long-standing industries. Until recently, driving a cab in New York was a gateway to the middle class, especially if drivers could get their hands on a coveted medallion (essentially a permit to operate their own cabs, rather than leasing cars from others). With the number of medallions fixed, prices generally rose, peaking in 2014 at over $1 million—well outside the budget of many drivers, but good news for medallion owners who sometimes borrowed against them. Since then, though, prices have fallen sharply, as competition from ride-hailing services intensified. In January, seven medallions sold for under $200,000 each. Many drivers are deeply in debt—and a long way from the stable lifestyle they once expected.
“To call it an engine of social mobility would be overstating it, but [driving a taxi] is definitely a way that men without college educations have found to raise families, to provide family wages, for a long time,” says Julia Ticona, a sociologist studying technologies of work, emotions, and inequality at the Data & Society research institute in New York. For taxi drivers, disruption is not only financially destabilizing, but also demoralizing, as it recasts their careers as gig work. A longtime taxi driver who prides himself on knowing the ins and outs of the city’s streets is now competing with tens of thousands of newcomers, some of whom may only be driving as a part-time side hustle. “There’s this tension between older sets of professional norms and the ways that labor platforms are encouraging workers to promote themselves and be entrepreneurial,” Ticona says.
Though New York City caps the number of yellow cabs at just over 13,600, it doesn’t limit the number of drivers for Uber, Lyft, or other services. (It does, unlike most US cities, require that ride-share drivers be licensed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission.) The lack of regulation has led to rapid growth: Uber launched in the city in 2012 with just 105 cars on the road; by 2015, that had ballooned to 20,000, and today, there are more than 63,000 black cars providing rides through various ride-hailing apps, 60,000 of which are affiliated with Uber. Those rallying on Wednesday argued that growth is affecting all drivers—including those for Uber and Lyft. “The business model of Uber and Lyft…is destroying every driver across the sector,” said Desai. “They are destroying the full-time jobs of professional yellow [cab], green [cab], livery, and black car drivers, and replacing them with poverty-paid gigs where Uber and Lyft drivers themselves cannot survive.” A 2017 survey of drivers by the Independent Drivers Guild, which represents app-based drivers, found that 57 percent of respondents earn less than $50,000 per year, and 22 percent earn less than $30,000 per year.
As much as some taxi and app-based drivers may see each other as competition, they also are united on several fronts. They all want more money: The IDG is petitioning the city to require apps to raise driver pay by 37 percent, and the NYTWA is demanding that the city raise yellow cab rates and make them the minimum for all app-based services. Both groups also want the city to cap the number of new entrants, as they worry that demand isn’t keeping pace with increasing supply of drivers. Uber and Lyft bring on hundreds of new drivers per week—though some quickly quit. A recent analysis by Bruce Schaller, a former NYC traffic and planning commissioner, showed that the hours that taxis and ride-share vehicles spend unoccupied in central Manhattan increased by 81 percent between 2013 and 2017. Without passengers, drivers don’t earn money. “We don’t care about competition,” said Afsi, who began driving for Uber after leasing a yellow cab for nine years. “When you work 14, 15 hours and go home with $50, it’s not good. It’s not about competition. It’s about survival.”
Drivers and their advocates hope that, if anything, the recent string of suicides will compel New York City to further regulate the industry and avoid a full-throttled race to the bottom. The city last considered capping the number of for-hire vehicles on the road in 2015; however, Uber campaigned against the cap, and the City Council did not pass the legislation. Now, City Council Member Stephen Levin is again proposing a temporary freeze on new for-hire vehicle licenses while the city studies on the impact of the industry’s growth.
That’s one of several proposals for mitigating the effects of more ride hailing. Last fall, Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez introduced a bill that would allow medallion owners to operate two vehicles under a single medallion, helping boost the value of medallions. Rodriguez has previously suggested that the city bail out medallion owners, saying that “we should find a form of restitution to those who have invested in our city’s future through the purchase of medallions.” Another Council Member, Ruben Diaz Sr. introduced a bill last month meant to slow the growth of app-based for-hire services with, among other things, a $2,000 annual fee on every vehicle affiliated with an app-based service. And the TLC is considering piloting a program that would let taxi drivers offer up-front cost estimates. In theory, that could help them attract passengers who currently prefer the cost predictability of Uber to the traffic-dependent price of yellow cabs.
All those proposals share one critical element: They place the burden for change on the city, rather than the ride-share companies. And perhaps for good reason. Though app-based companies could theoretically raise wages or cap their pool of drivers on their own, they have no incentive to curb their growth. “The only place [a solution] will possibly come from is from public policy,” says Schaller, the former NYC traffic and planning commissioner. “The [app-based services] are hellbent on growth, and if I were the CEO at Uber and had announced that I planned to take the company public next year, I would be, too.” In a statement, Uber pointed to steps it has taken recently to win back its drivers’ trust, such as introducing in-app tipping and allowing drivers to earn more while waiting to pick up riders. “Drivers told us we needed to do better and we have been working hard to earn back their trust and improve the driver experience,” a spokesperson said. A Lyft spokesperson said that the company is “in ongoing conversations to find solutions to complex challenges in New York in order to provide the best transportation for passengers and earning opportunity for those who drive with Lyft.”
The New York City Council created a new committee on for-hire vehicles in 2018, and that committee had its first hearing shortly after Schifter’s suicide in February. For several hours, drivers and advocates delivered emotional testimony and asked for a cap on the number of vehicles on city streets. TLC Commissioner Meera Joshi appeared receptive to the idea of stricter regulation, acknowledging at the hearing that “the expanding industry will continue to make driving a very stressful career without any growth-control mechanism.”
Some sort of “growth-control mechanism” would likely ease the impact that the ride sharing boom has had on drivers across the industry. But the days of being able to retire on a yellow cab medallion might be a thing of the past. “People are frozen in place, dreaming of the idea that the medallion system is about to recover,” says Schaller. “This can turn out perfectly fine for yellow cab drivers. It’s very difficult to see how it could be fine for yellow cab medallion owners.” In other words, it may not be possible to protect every worker from the negative effects of disruption—but there is hope that new regulations might keep drivers from going to the desperate extremes that the city has seen in recent months.