In a steady drizzle outside City Hall in lower Manhattan, dozens of drivers carried signs with slogans such as “Respect the Drivers,” and “Stop the Race to the Bottom,” before presenting their demands to Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city council.
Among them was Lal Singh, who has been a taxi driver in New York for almost three decades. After leasing his medallion for about 10 years, Singh said that he was delighted to be able to buy his own medallion, a permit to operate a taxi in New York, in 2000.
According to the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), the city has a cap on the number of medallions, currently at 12,000 for yellow taxis that can operate in all five boroughs, and about 2,000 for green taxis that operate in the outer boroughs.
Because of their fixed number, medallion prices skyrocketed, and at its peak in 2013 sold for over $1 million. In January 2018 medallions were auctioned off for just $200,000.
Singh, 62, bought his in 2000 for $225,000 thinking it would be a solid investment for his retirement, he told Reuters.
“Instead of paying the lease, so one day when I will be finished paying, I can relax. End of my time when I can get retired, none of my kids will be using the taxi, and I can sell it,” the father of six said at his Long Island home.
Everything changed when Uber and other app-based services came on the scene about five years ago, their category swelling to more than 100,000 cars, according to the TLC, with about 2,000 cars joining this fleet each month.
Medallion prices plummeted, streets got overcrowded more cars and drivers such as Singh say they have to work longer hours for less pay.
Uber sent out a statement in response to a proposed bill that was introduced on Wednesday by City Councilman Ruben Diaz, chair of the new For-Hire Vehicles Committee. The bill requires every app-based driver to pay a $2,000 annual fee.
In its statement, Uber called the bill “a cynical attempt to force drivers out of the industry and deny riders reliable service.”
App-based ride service provider Lyft is in “ongoing conversations” with New York about its operations in the city, spokesman Campbell Matthews said in an email to Reuters.
Singh said that he works at least 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to pay back the $325,000 that he still owes on his medallion.
In its heyday medallions were used as credit cards by drivers, financing their homes and getting loans from banks. Singh said that his debt ballooned after he borrowed money to pay off his house in 2014 and to pay for a store that since has failed.
“No vacation believe me (for the) next five years unless it is end of my life. I have to pay off the bills. So then I don’t know maybe one day I have to do suicide. You know listen I’m a human being. I can be fed up,” he said.
In recent months, four drivers across different for hire vehicles sectors in New York have committed suicide citing financial difficulties aggravated by ride sharing apps.
Douglas Shifter, a livery driver shot himself to death in front of City Hall leaving a lengthy Facebook post last February, while in March yellow taxi medallion owner Nicanor Ochisor hanged himself in his Queens garage, according to police.
“I’ve never seen anything like the level of despair that we see today,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the 19,000-member New York Taxi Workers Alliance. The group represents all categories of for-hire drivers.
Desai, who organized Wednesday’s protest demands the city to regulate the ride sharing industry.
“There needs to be a cap on the number of vehicles. There needs to be a wage floor on the rates that the companies used to charge the passengers, because the fare is the only way that drivers can earn income for themselves,” she said.
She also criticized ride sharing companies for lowering fares for its drivers.
“In essence they starved their own drivers in order to starve the competitor drivers. No driver wins that race to the bottom.”