This story first appeared on RideGuru as a two part segment regarding the tensions between Taxi and Uber Drivers. We are sharing both segments below as it is a fascinating in depth look at how ridesharing has completely changed the culture of being a Taxi Driver.
Meet Patrick: The Seasoned Taxi Driver
I live in Florida, it is hot and humid most of the year but I’m too stubborn to replace my home AC. It died in late September about 7 years ago, at which time I decided to tough it out until the next summer. Summer can begin in May, but by June the heat and humidity are here in full force until the end of October. I found I was saving over a hundred dollars a month on my energy bill without an AC, and today that’s a much greater consideration than it was in the past. I drive from 6pm-6am so if I get home and to sleep by say, 8:30 am, the heat is going to wake me up any time from 11:30-1:30. I may catch another hour, but I’m lucky if I get five uninterrupted hours of sleep before my next 12 hour shift. If it’s not the heat it’s the neighbor’s barking Yorkies, the weed whacker next door, or the recent Sunday morning tree trimming project involving the use of an electric chainsaw, by the same neighbor who owns the Yorkies.
I have ample time to think about these things as I sit parked at a designated taxi stand downtown. It’s Friday night and the streets are flooded with Uber/Lyft vehicles from out of town. I began driving a cab in 2003. It was economic necessity as I had been unemployed for a couple of months and exhausted my rainy day savings. Part of my motivation was also that I thought it would be a good way to learn how to drive. Prior to that and up to the present day my lifestyle choices allowed me to live without the necessity of owning a vehicle. I didn’t own a vehicle and hadn’t since 1974, I’d gotten by just fine without one. In fact, 1972-’74 were the only time I owned vehicles in my life. I owned a motorcycle which was a gift I received in 1993 and drove for 12 years. It was destroyed by the floodwaters of Hurricane Wilma in Oct. of 2005. In 1972 while living in New Jersey, I had purchased a 1970 red VW bug convertible which I sold later that year for $250. Then I bought a tan 1969 Chevy Sport Van. In late 1973 I left it parked on the edge of a farmer’s field near Matawan, N.J., with the permission of the farmer who owned the land. I didn’t return to New Jersey until a visit in 1992 and the Chevy Sport Van was still sitting where I had abandoned it. It had sunk into the earth down to the chassis and the farmer was using it to store corn.
Uber/Lyft & Cab drivers – Similarities are Endless
At some point a long time ago everything that was new, challenging, frustrating, puzzling, distressing or shocking about driving a cab became familiar and commonplace to me. I learned, and continue to learn from experience. I am about as comfortable as I can be in an environment in which I work. Most of the time I am able to cope effectively with the stress that is unique to that environment. I work on the weekends from 6pm-6am, so I am dealing mostly with passengers, both locals and tourists, who have been drinking. They are in varying stages of inebriation, often to excess. It might sound kind of crude, but among local taxi drivers it is common knowledge that if you drive a cab during the day you deal with the traffic, while driving at night you deal with the drunks. There is some overlap, but it’s accurate to say they are two entirely different jobs and you have to choose one or the other. It’s the difference between night and day. They both require patience and tolerance but have distinctly separate qualities. Personal temperament might be the deciding factor as to which you choose. A former night driver I know who switched to days did so because he couldn’t deal with drunk people anymore. He said the very thought of any such encounter made the hair stand up on the back of his neck.
When I sat for my interview in the office of the general manager of the taxi company that hired me, I was asked if I wanted to drive during the day or at night. I had no idea, no preference and no answer. There happened to have been a taxi driver by the name of “Lucky” who was present at that moment, and observing my hesitation he volunteered the information that “It’s more fun driving at night”. So that’s how I chose.
As for driving, you have to exercise constant vigilance. The traffic is a chaotic mix of vehicles, scooters, bicyclists, skateboarders and pedestrians, many of them tourists who are distracted by one thing or another; the exotic sights and the tropical scenery or the hypnotic glow of their smartphone as it navigates them into jeopardy. Excluding for the most part those who are driving cars, because it’s the weekend the rest are often under the influence of alcohol to a greater or lesser degree, for better or for worse. I often think of it as a video game where the object is to avoid hitting the targets, and you must also multitask while playing the game. Generally speaking though from about midnight on the traffic begins to thin out and driving from one side of town to the other can be a breeze. As the night progresses, getting into the early hours often the only vehicles on the road are police cars and taxis.
When I began driving a taxi I was pleased and relieved to find that I was making decent money from the start, despite my lack of experience. However, in retrospect I can’t say that I recommend it as the best way to learn how to drive or make up for a lack of experience behind the wheel. It’s too nerve wracking. In a short amount of time my taxi earnings increased considerably. My income became comparable to the years I worked as a commercial fisherman. Very good, and I got to go home every day instead of being out to sea for 2-3 weeks engaged in brutal, nearly constant labor. Another bit of generally accepted wisdom among local taxi drivers is that you must put away some money when times are busy, to get you through the times that are slow. That’s a true fact. There were slow stretches. I fell a little bit behind sometimes, but I always caught up and then I even thrived, I prospered. The overall economics trended upwards for a long time. The taxi industry already had a well established reputation of being a reliable entry point for people joining the middle class of this country, many of them recently arrived immigrants. Furthermore it provided the opportunity for upward mobility with the chance of a better life for the children of those immigrants who became drivers. In the town where I live, which survives from the tourist industry, it’s a great way to earn money, providing you can tolerate the working conditions and environment.
Supply & Demand
One of the most important factors that influence how much money I earn in a 12 hour shift is determined by the total number of cabs that are on the road at any given time. The less cabs the better. In my city there are a fixed number of taxi licenses, (which are known as medallions in places like NYC). At one time there was a total of about 76 licenses, so that would be the maximum number of taxis in play at any given time. Sometimes there aren’t enough cabs on the road to service the demand, such as when it rains, but that’s rare. More typically there are too many taxis operating, and as a result all the drivers earn less money. When this occurs for any duration the drivers, who are independent contractors, eventually begin complaining to the fleet owners, who make their money by leasing the cabs to us drivers. It’s what I would describe as a cordial symbiotic relationship, but those of a more cynical perspective might view it as parasitical.
Every relationship is unique though, subject to change, and the owner of the company I drive for was a cab driver before he became the owner of the taxi company and 45 taxi licenses. I see that as advantageous to me personally as well as generally, in terms of his ability to relate to us as cab drivers and such has been my experience, to an extent. He is also a dispatcher and I have fond memories of many years working lucrative 12 hours Friday night shifts every week while he sat at the microphone, dispatching all of us cab drivers with great skill, slightly acerbic humor and lightning fast sarcastic wit. It was a pleasure and one of the most enjoyable workplace experiences I’ve ever had.
When times are slow and enough drivers complain long enough about the excessive number of taxis on the road, the fleet owner might eventually respond by scheduling less taxis, even though it reduces his profits. If drivers aren’t earning adequate income during their shifts, at a certain point they’ll just call in sick or simply not bother showing up. Even though the company policy is to charge the drivers who pull a “no show” for the full twelve hour lease anyway, I think it’s always been understood that there has to be some give and take. Otherwise drivers will leave to find other employment or reduce the number of shifts they work, and ultimately it has a negative impact on the company itself. At the company I drive for there was at one time a long list of applicants waiting for a chance to become a taxi driver. There was an awareness among us drivers that we were all easily replaceable and subject to being fired at will. At the same time I think that the owner recognized the advantages and importance of having seasoned, knowledgeable and committed drivers who could behave professionally and perform their job safely and effectively. If you weren’t a complete reprobate or some kind of loose cannon, I guess you could feel secure in keeping your job. No question that the fleet owner has the upper hand, and being an independent contractor has many disadvantages, but if you’re earning enough money that you can actually thrive, (and you could), then there is a reasonable balance.
Making Ends Meet
The cost of living is very high here. Some people work 2 or 3 jobs just to survive. You could earn enough money driving a cab to pay your rent or your mortgage, clothe and feed yourself well, afford regular dental care and basic medical care. You could take a month and a half vacation each year, or even more. Some drivers only work part of the year then survived the rest of the year on their savings, often going to a foreign country to enjoy and experience a different culture where the cost of living was much less. Some didn’t even commit to the obligation of a steady schedule, and would show up when they felt like driving, waiting to see if someone would call in sick or pull a no show and a cab would become available. Or else they would sign up to cover the shifts that temporarily opened when a driver went on vacation.
Enter Uber & Lyft
In 2017 when all of us cab drivers realized that the arrival of Uber/Lyft was imminent, everyone planned for that event accordingly. Some drivers reacted drastically. I was content and relatively comfortable with the way things were, still prospering as a taxi driver despite the disadvantages of my self employed status. I had no desire to purchase a vehicle, which would have entailed a payment plan to become a rideshare driver. A spark of doubt had been struck within me as I listened to all the hyperbole about the looming apocalypse for the local taxi business, the inevitability and innovative superiority of it all, the unstoppable “juggernaut” that was Uber, the end of car ownership and the looming advent of autonomous vehicles and flying taxis.
The thought of ridesharing became even less likely for me. I rebelled against the authoritarian “resistance is futile” tone. Not even when the negative impact of Uber/Lyft’s presence on the local taxi industry became apparent. At that point I was more aware of and angry about their business methods and tactics and so even less inclined to have anything to do with them.
With effort everyone made driving a cab work for them. There was flexibility. We all prospered. Just as each year there were slow stretches, there were also long passages of time when it was consistently busy. Nearly constant calls and street hails from the beginning to the end of a 12 hour shift, night after night. I’ve been speaking in the past tense here occasionally because those days are gone. At least for now. The slow stretch has become permanent, the struggle is constant and the battle often seems like a losing one. From experience I know that when the streets are flooded with for hire vehicles to the point of oversaturation, there is less money for everyone and it creates more traffic congestion. Nobody makes much money then.
The government of Florida passed legislation written by Uber/Lyft that allows them to operate freely and at will in the entire state without having to abide by any of the local rules and regulations that apply to taxis. The ruling went into effect on July 2nd of 2017. Since then driving a taxi here is mostly a minimum wage job. Sometimes more, but unfortunately there are frequently times when it’s even less. No one can survive in this town on $8.46 per hour. That’s what I earned here in 1985 working 35 hours a week at an Italian Restaurant. My schedule was 7 days a week, five hours a day. If you drove six 12 hour shifts a week you might get by, but there is no guarantee of that anymore and it’s a recipe for ill health.
How does Patrick feel about Uber/Lyft Drivers?
As bad as it ever was and as bad as it may be now, it’s certainly worse for the Uber/Lyft drivers who inundate the town on the weekends. They come here because Miami and Ft. Lauderdale are oversaturated with rideshare drivers and no one can make money there. They wouldn’t make a 350 mile plus round trip, sleeping in their vehicles when logged off of the platform if that weren’t the case. I see the Uber/Lyft driver turnover, (or “churn”, as it’s known), because I’m out there every weekend. Anywhere from every few weeks up to around 3 months or so I see familiar faces disappear and new rideshare drivers replace them. Lately they appear to be mostly Haitian. They clog up the main streets in the downtown area as they slowly cruise around empty, bringing traffic to a standstill and making it hard for taxi drivers to respond quickly to dispatched calls or get from point A to point B.
On the weekends I’m pretty sure they outnumber us. They don’t pull over to the curb when picking up or dropping off passengers and they’ll stop just about anywhere. In the middle of intersections, at green lights, or even halfway through a turn. They are being directed by their app and at the very moment it tells them they have arrived at their target, they stop, no matter where it is. It’s plain to see that’s where their eyes are focused, rather than on the road. I constantly see their “would be passengers” running up and down the street holding their smartphones up in the air, darting in and around cars as they chase after vehicles trying to find their personal Uber/Lyft driver.
The taxi fleet owners have been accused of being greedy and some of them are, but like I said before I found that as an independent contractor my relationship with ownership was a cordial symbiosis that was lucrative and flexible. The billionaire CEO’s and venture capitalists of Uber/Lyft bring greed and exploitation to a whole different level. Maybe that’s how billionaires are made. The taxi company I drive for has a fleet mechanic whose job it is to keep the cabs in good working order. Along with the dispatch service it’s part of what I pay for in my lease. It never was and never will be as good for rideshare drivers.
I get frustrated by the presence of these out of town rideshare drivers but don’t hold it against them personally, knowing to what extent they have been misled and the horrendous way they are constantly mistreated.
Patrick’s Outlook on Rideshare Services
As for the future, I don’t think that Uber/Lyft will survive. It’s not economically possible, otherwise it would have already happened. Not with their present business model, where the rides are subsidized and the drivers absorb all the operating costs and are getting squeezed more and more with the passing of time. It’s no wonder that drivers are up in arms. Their unspoken end goal has always been total market dominance, after which they would raise their prices and begin earning an actual profit.
Complete market dominance is something that taxi fleet owners never achieved, not even locally, and since some of them are undeniably avaricious, if such a thing were possible it would have occurred at some point in the last hundred years. I truly believe that Uber/Lyft are nothing more than a giant scam fueled by a massive PR campaign consisting of grandiose exaggerations and lies. It’s designed to enrich the one percent, or the point one percent at a cost that is becoming more evident with the passing of time.
They broke a lot of rules and a lot of laws when they steamrolled into existence, thumbing their noses at officialdom and they behaved atrociously on a corporate level. They got called onto the carpet for it, but the economic damage they inflicted on an entire industry is ongoing and the independent contractor/taxi drivers are the majority victims of the harm they inflicted. The rideshare drivers have it worse, though some of them may not realize it yet. I honestly think that the only way they can count on making money is by gaming the system, using strategies and tricks that would likely get them deactivated from the platform if they were caught. Uber still makes the absurd claim about being the “Amazon of Transportation” and the press continues to report it as a factual, foregone conclusion. A particularly arrogant form of manifest destiny.
I see them more as the “Cancer of the Economy” and I hope their malignant methods and practices don’t metastasize to other industries and turn the employees who had decent jobs with financial access to good benefits into mistreated, scorned sharecroppers. Maybe someday there will even be a moral accounting. Then the billionaires and venture capitalists, along with the high priced political lobbyists and willing politicians who supported Uber/Lyft will have to answer for their disruptive, destructive actions that created the staggering wealth and positions of authority and power they have attained.