There has been a rise in suicide among taxi drivers since the growth of private ride-hailing sectors such as Uber and Lyft. How are these drivers feeling, and what can cities do about it?
New York and Taxis
I’ve only ridden a taxi twice in New York. The first time was with my parents, and it was an insane ride where the driver was going through twists and turns in the city. The second time was with Mr. Squigglekins when we hailed a taxi from Manhatten back to my friend’s apartment in Brooklyn. I didn’t think again on my experience riding in taxis, especially in New York, until I heard about a tick in suicides happening in the taxi driving community.
Taxi Drivers’ Demographic
In New York City, as of 2016, 91 percent of the city’s professional drivers were immigrants, many who come from the world’s poorest countries. Half of the drivers, who were not part of the rideshare community, came from the Dominican Republic. Then a quarter of taxi drivers came from Bangladesh.
Why Taxi Drivers are Dying From Suicide
There has been a rash of suicides among New York City’s taxi drivers. Their advocates and the taxi drivers point fingers to the rise of ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft as the reason for their despair. The suicides are a real deal especially for taxi drivers who have invested their life savings into medallions.
Taxi medallions are permits that cities issue to cap the number of taxis on the road. These permits were once a virtual guarantee as financial security because it gave owners the right to own a taxi and lease it to others.
Many people, especially immigrants, saw taxi medallions as a way to achieve the American Dream. They would finance the permits like they would a mortgage, believing it would grow in value over time.
In 2014, the New York City medallion topped at $1 million. The same year it was valued at $700,000 in Boston, $400,000 in Philadelphia, and $300,000 in Chicago.
Since Uber and Lyft disrupted the ride-hailing market by allowing users to request ride shares by an app, loans for taxi medallions have dried up as prices decreased.
Last year, the Aspire Federal Credit Union put a bid for five New York City medallions. The effort started at $150,000, but none sold more than $200,000.
A Taxi Driver’s Thoughts
In an interview with NBC news, Nnamdi Uwazie, a Nigerian immigrant, has been driving taxis in Chicago for over a decade. He has said the last few years have been difficult because of the arrival of Uber.
He works seven days a week, 15 hours a day, and after he pays the taxi company $475 lease fee, he barely has a few hundred dollars left to put food on the table and make ends meet for his family.
Although Uwazie feels that Uber and Lyft have wrecked the ride-hailing market, he says, “It’s not that they should not be in it, but they should be regulated like taxi drivers.”
He says, “The drivers are underwater, and if they can’t refinance, they are giving up their medallions.” He had hoped one day to own his medallion, but is not glad that he didn’t.” He further adds, ” Those medallions were supposed to be their [the taxi drivers’] 401k, but everything has been flushed down the drain.”
The Chicago Dispatcher, a monthly newspaper for cab drivers and for people whose livelihood depend on driving, placed an ad for suicide prevention on page 3 in on of their editions.
Ride Share Reactions
The New York Times reported that Yu Mein Chow, a New York cabbie who was found drowned in the East River earlier in May, had taken out a loan seven years ago to buy a $700,000 medallion and was struggling. His family believes he killed himself.
In a statement, Uber expressed condolences to the Chow family but said he was a victim of predatory lenders and economic change.
Drivers who own individual medallions have been left behind by change and exploited by lenders, and we support action that eases their financial burden. – Uber Company
The company also defended the practices in New York, saying that Uber is not poaching the central territory that is served by yellow cabs, which is Manhattan.
The spokesperson has said that Uber has worked hard to diversify the transportation needs of NYC, and that majority of the trips serve the Bronx, Staten Island, Queens, and Brooklyn.
Uber and Lyft Aren’t the Only One to Blame
John Boit, a spokesperson for the Taxicab, Limousine, and Paratransit Association, said that operators like Uber are not solely at fault for the undermining what has been seen a respectable living for generations of drivers. New York City Hall is also at fault for not protecting those who invested their career in driving.
“The city enriched itself with billions of dollars in medallion sales and then allowed a massive influx of new drivers, clogging the streets and bringing down income industrywide. The current situation makes it impossible for many to repay their debts. What the drivers need now is a fair solution for their investment in city medallions and level playing field for the future.” -John Boit
Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Worker Alliance, asserted that there needs to be something done about the saturation of ride hail services on the street. Desai has called for imposing stricter regulations on the ride-hailing sector to create an equal playing field and to decrease the number of drivers on the road.
While I agree with Desai that there should be stricter regulations on private ride hail services, many consequences come when you put more rules on anything.
One consequence is that stricter regulations can kill the base of what Lyft and Uber do. Cheaper rides in a shorter time. More rules could make Lyft and Uber just another taxi company. The people who drive for Lyft and Uber, it’s a side gig for them, they don’t do this for as their primary bread and butter.
Another consequence could be that more regulations could increase costs for consumers and consumers don’t like that.
I don’t know the answers, but I do hope the ride-hailing sector occupation will either evolve or will be fixed so that people are still able to make money.
Picture By Sonia Sevilla [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons