|UBER noose is around cabby's neck.|
Nnamdi Uwazie said he drives seven days a week, 15 hours a day, and after he pays the cab company the $475 weekly lease fee, he rarely has more than a few hundred dollars left to feed his family.
Take it from veteran Chicago cabby Nnamdi Uwazie: The shock waves from the recent suicides of five New York City taxi and livery drivers are being felt in the Windy City as well. So is the desperation that drove a struggling limo driver to kill himself with a shotgun outside City Hall in Manhattan two months ago.
"We were all talking about what happened in New York and how it could happen here because it's so hard to be a cab driver in Chicago," Uwazie told NBC News. "So many people's livelihoods are gone. It is only by the grace of God we are still here."
For cab drivers like Uwazie, the culprit in Chicago, as in New York, it's ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft that have revolutionized the industry and siphoned off customers, while not having to comply with the same stringent regulations as taxi drivers.
The wave of suicides that claimed the life of livery driver Douglas Schifter and four others appears to be limited to New York, but taxi industry insiders say drivers across the country face the same pressures — especially those in big cities who invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxi medallions that have rapidly lost their value with the rise of the ride-sharing services.
“It’s an economic crisis across the industry and across the country,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a union for cabbies.
Uwazie, 55, a Nigerian immigrant, has been driving for over a decade and said the last few years have been especially hard because of the arrival of Uber. "What Uber and Lyft have done is come into the industry and wreck it," Uwazie said. "It's not that they should not be in it, but they should be regulated like taxi cabs."
Uwazie said he drives seven days a week, 15 hours a day, and after he pays a cab company the $475 weekly lease fee, he rarely has more than a few hundred dollars left to feed his family.
THE MEDALLION PROBLEM
Uwazie said he knows several Chicago drivers who died of heart attacks or strokes after struggling financially. “The drivers are underwater and if they can’t refinance, they are giving up their medallions,” said Uwazie, who had hoped to one day buy his own medallion but is now glad he didn't. “Those medallions were supposed to be their 401(k)s, but everything has been flushed down the drain."
In a measure of how shaken drivers in Chicago are by what happened in New York, The Chicago Dispatcher, a monthly newspaper for cab and livery drivers, placed an ad for a suicide prevention hotline on page 3 of the April edition.
|US$ one million for this little piece of metal.|
Many immigrants saw securing a taxi medallion as the fulfillment of their American Dream, and they financed them as they would a mortgage, assuming they would only grow in value over time. In 2014, the price of a New York City medallion topped $1 million. That year, they went for $700,000 in Boston, $400,000 in Philadelphia, and $300,0000 in Chicago.
But with the advent of outfits like Uber and Lyft, which cracked the cab monopoly by enabling consumers to hail rides from any registered driver using smartphones, loans for medallions dried up as the prices plummeted. Last year, more people used Uber than yellow cabs in New York City, according to the city’s Taxi & Limousine Commission, or TLC.
It’s an economic crisis across the industry and across the country. Meanwhile, cabbies and cab company operators have been unloading their medallions, the chief reason being bankruptcy. At a recent auction, the bidding for five New York City taxi medallions put up by the Aspire Federal Credit Union started at $150,000, and none sold for more than $200,000, Crain’s New York reported.
The situation in Chicago is no better. Three years after the city allowed Uber and Lyft to operate, hundreds of cab drivers are frantically trying to unload their medallions, and hundreds more are in foreclosure, said Cab Drivers United, the local union.
“There isn’t any financing available anymore,” said Charles Goodbar, a Chicago lawyer who used to help secure loans for medallion buyers and owns 58 of them himself. Goodbar recalled an immigrant cabbie, Joseph Slivo, who used every penny he had to make a down payment on a medallion and then found himself unable to keep up the loan payments because he wasn’t making enough on the road.
Yu Mein Chow, a New York City cabbie who was found drowned in the East River in May, had taken out a loan seven years ago to buy a $700,000 medallion and was also struggling, The New York Times reported. His family believes he killed himself.
Uber, in a statement, expressed condolences to the Chow family but said he was the 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," the company said.
Uber also defended the company's practices in New York, saying Uber drivers are not poaching the main territory served by yellow cabs, which is Manhattan. "Uber has worked hard to grow the transportation pie, ensuring that all New Yorkers can get a ride in minutes, particularly in neighborhoods outside of Manhattan that have been long ignored by yellow taxis and underserved by public transit,” the spokesperson said. “The majority of our trips are happening in the Bronx, Staten Island, Queens and Brooklyn."
|NYC Cabbies and the family mourning for Yu Mein Chow found drowned in the East River.|
John Boit, spokesman for the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, a national group, said operators like Uber aren't solely to blame for undermining what had been a respectable living for generations of drivers — New York's City Hall also deserves blame for not protecting those who had invested in driving careers, he said.
“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,” he said. “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 a level playing field for the future."
The New York City Taxi Workers Alliance, the local yellow cab union, has called for changes including capping the number of for-hire vehicles operating in the city. Mayor Bill de Blasio has not yet taken a position on the requested changes.
|Dough Shifter shot himself in public.|
This year, the Chicago City Council passed some reforms aimed at helping beleaguered cabbies, like extending limits on vehicle age, which Uber supported. But taxi drivers still face a different set of fees and rules than Uber drivers. Taxi drivers in Chicago pay more than $2,000 per year in city fees and taxes, while Uber pays an annual $10,000 fee to the city for permission to operate.
Lilia Chacon, a spokeswoman for the office of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said the ride-share industry is subject to additional taxes beyond the licensing fee and insisted the city has been trying to respond to the concerns of cabbies.
"The city has a continuous dialogue with the taxi industry," Chacon said in an email. "We will always seek to listen to and address the taxi industry's concerns and remain open to additional reforms to streamline and improve the industry."
But in a city where clout is king, Uber has a direct line to the mayor. Emanuel's former chief of staff Lisa Schrader now works for Uber. And the Hollywood talent agency headed by Emanuel's brother, Ari, is a big investor in the company.
Before Schifter, the New York livery driver, killed himself in February he waged what The New York Times called a “one-man campaign to stop Uber from putting his fellow black-car drivers out of business.” He posted a note on Facebook saying he could no longer make a living and blamed the city for not doing more to rein in Uber. “I am sure there are people feeling pain in cities all over the country,” said Neil Weiss, who is editor of Black Car News, which covers the for-hire vehicle industry in New York. He edited the columns that Schifter wrote for the trade publication and considered him a friend.
In 2013, when there were 47,000 for-hire vehicles in New York, drivers could recoup their initial investment of a car, insurance and licensing and then make a living, Weiss said. Now there are more than 100,000 for-hire vehicles, and about two-thirds of those are Uber rides, according to the TLC.
“Studies have shown that Uber drivers themselves earn below the minimum wage,” said Desai of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. “There is a deeper crisis here that is destroying the lives and livelihoods of full-time drivers.”
(Blogger’s Notes: Well before the rise-&-rise of UBER the big bosses running the taxi industry in every major city of the developed world were called TAXI MAFIA as they brutally controlled, via the corrupt politicians in their pockets, the number of taxis allowed to operate in their respective city. By doing so they let the prices of taxi plates -- known as taxi medallions in US -- to soar and make themselves super-rich.
Now UBER has broken the Taxi Mafia’s back by putting thousands and thousands of taxi-alternative-vehicles driven by non-cab-drivers in every major city. More and more taxis mean less and less fares for each and every cab-driver and that tragic effects on not just the plate owners but also the drivers are causing the multiple suicides of owner-drivers in the New York City. They had stupidly borrowed too much money to buy the inflated taxi plates (medallions).
Federal and state governments are intentionally ignoring the problems for they are the one reaping massive income taxes from both UBER drivers and the traditional taxi drivers as the UBER system is non-cash but credit cards only and every cent UBER drivers earn is declared and exact income tax taken out and sent religiously to the respective government. Governments are using those known UBER drivers’ incomes and forcing the traditional cab drivers to pay comparable income taxes.
Taxi drivers used to have much-more-than-decent income because they do not declare their cash-incomes correctly and governments hate them but couldn’t do a thing for their tax avoidance. UBER drivers are now earning below minimum wages for that reason alone as income taxes eat into their earnings. Poor cabbies are now being killed by both technology and heavy income tax.)