Last Sunday morning I opened my Philadelphia Inquirer to find a front page story titled “In Cabs or Ride-Sharing Vehicles, Drivers Struggle to Scrape By.” It described the plight of one Bangladeshi immigrant taxi driver, Shah Golamkader, who has seen his income plunge by over one third since Uber and Lyft entered the Philadelphia market in 2014, even though he’s driving more hours than ever. He switched to Uber for a time, then returned to the cab company after finding he made no more money and had to sacrifice his personal vehicle in the process. Either way, he concluded, “If you’re driving a taxi cab or Uber, you have no money.”
On the way up to New York City with my daughter a few hours later, I heard that the body of a taxi driver, Burmese immigrant Yu Mein Chow, was found in the East River. He was the fifth New York taxi driver to commit suicide in as many months. Mr. Chow purchased a taxi medallion in 2011 for $700,00, a good deal at the time. Today it is worth less than $100,000, but he still has to make payments on the existing loan, a task now impossible since his income was cut in half by Uber. A day before his death he tried to make a loan payment but his credit card was rejected. The next day he jumped off a bridge into the East River, leaving behind a daughter in college and wife battling cancer.
I confess a personal interest in this story, since I have been doing some Uber driving since January. The money’s okay for a part time gig but you can’t live on it. The fares are so low (and the company takes 20% for booking them) that you only make money at peak times during “surge” prices, when they raise rates to cover increased demand. Unfortunately, but predictably, this leads drivers to “flood the zone,” resulting in less rides per driver. Since they pay no salary, benefits, gas or vehicle maintenance, Uber has every incentive to sign up as many drivers as possible to maximize coverage and customer satisfaction. On the way home I heard a radio ad and saw a billboard touting the great benefits of Uber driving. I sadly shook my head and thought of P.T. Barnum’s phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
The bottom line is, in exchange for your cheap ride and my driver’s pittance, Uber (and to a lesser extent Lyft) have ruined the taxi business. Rides and revenue in Philadelphia have declined nearly 50% since 2014, and similarly in New York and other cities. This has crushed the livelihoods and spirits of tens of thousands of hard working people, many of them immigrants, who work 12-14 hour days, 6 days a week, and still can’t make a living. They are precisely analogous to the millions of “forgotten” men and women who lost their good paying factory jobs and voted for Trump in 2016. They worked hard, played by the rules and got screwed through no fault of their own. They need and deserve our help.
State and local governments should immediately impose a tax of at least $1 per ride on Uber, Lyft and their ilk, to “level the field” in terms of fares. They should use it to help taxi companies and public transportation adjust and retool their services, as well as to repair roads which increased congestion has damaged. Uber and Lyft are predatory competitors who take advantage of their “independent contractors” to destroy family sustaining jobs. The only ones who truly benefit are the “mafia” and their minions in Silicon Valley, who take a cut on every transaction. As for you, do you really need to save those few bucks to get to the airport or go crosstown? You might ask a friend to drive you or take public transportation if the fare actually represented the true cost, socially speaking.
“The drivers are the sorry losers in it,” says David King of Arizona State U, who has studied the industry. “That’s kind of the larger narrative about deregulation and the technology enabled gig economy.” Think about that the next time you click the Uber or Lyft apps. Think it doesn’t apply to you? Who knows what automation and artificial intelligence will do to your job in the near future? If compassion and solidarity isn’t enough to move you, consider this: “Whatsoever you do (or don’t) to least of my children, that you do unto me.” (Matthew 25: 40) The life you save may be your own.