After four professional drivers killed themselves in the span of five months, an increasingly vocal community of professional drivers are laying the blame at the feet of the City Council and the Mayor, who had the chance to save their livelihood three years ago, but chose not to.
“If they’d done something then, we wouldn’t be going through this right now,” says Beresford Simmons, a yellow cab driver since 1971. “You have guys killing themselves now, guys losing their homes because they defrauded us.”
The opportunity came and went in July of 2015, at a time when the flood of Ubers into New York’s streets had reached what then seemed like a breaking point. More than 2,000 new for-hire vehicles were arriving in the city each month, most of them into the gridlocked core of Manhattan. The number of new Uber licenses had just eclipsed the entire fleet of yellow taxis, and was on track to double within six months. Meanwhile, delinquencies on taxi medallion loans had started to skyrocket, and figures quietly released by the city projected a $500 million revenue hit over four years as a result of the medallions’ plummeting value.
A month earlier, Mayor Bill de Blasio had thrown his support behind a City Council bill to place a temporary cap on the e-hail companies. Uber was “a corporate giant operat[ing] in New York City without basic rules in place to protect the public,” the mayor declared, and freezing that incursion was the only way to protect cab drivers while fending off congestion. He seemed to really believe this, even as Uber mounted a ferocious, well-funded public campaign against him.
Then, just days before an expected vote on the measure, the mayor changed his mind. His administration had struck a handshake deal with the company, a spokesperson said, and would be holding off on the legislation. The stunning reversal was widely attributed to Uber’s public relations attack: “The flat-out capitulation of the mayor,” Politico noted at the time, “came after an almost unprecedented display of political power by a corporation.” Others blamed Governor Andrew Cuomo, who’d reportedly lobbied then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito against restricting Uber—“one of these great inventions, startups, of this new economy,” in his view.
Whatever the reason, the proposed cap was shelved, along with the political will to bring real regulation to the swelling ride-share companies.
“There was enough information in 2015 to know there was going to be a serious crisis if City Hall didn’t step in,” recalls Bhairavi Desai, founder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, an advocacy group representing 19,000 drivers. “They knew that something had to be done.”
In the years since, suffocating congestion and a ballooning stock of for-hire vehicles—around 100,000, at last count—has pushed driver incomes toward poverty levels. The worst of that suffering has fallen on those who purchased one of the 13,587 medallions sold by the city. Long considered one of the country’s best investments, the tin badges, which are required to operate a yellow cab in the city, have plummeted in value by 80 percent in the last five years—the predictable result of an unprecedented explosion of supply into a market built on the premise of exclusivity.
The impact on drivers who’d staked their homes, their retirements, and their futures on the medallions has been catastrophic. In 2013, the average price of a medallion was around $1 million; at a 2017 auction in Queens they sold for $186,000. In the past year, Simmons says more than 20 drivers he knows personally have fallen into bankruptcy over unpaid debt on their medallions. His days off are now spent at the airport, collecting donations from other drivers for his former partner, who was left homeless after the bank foreclosed on his house. “It’s worse than I’ve ever seen it, and it’s not getting better,” says Simmons.
According to Simmons and other drivers, the suicides of four drivers in the last five months can be seen as the logical end point of this desperation. On February 6th, Douglas Schifter, a livery car driver, shot himself outside City Hall, leaving behind a lengthy Facebook post detailing the ways his livelihood had been “ruined by stupid greedy uncaring politicians.”
In March, Nicanor Ochiser hanged himself in his garage in Maspeth; the 65-year-old Romanian immigrant had become depressed, family members said, as he watched the value of his yellow taxi medallion plummet, and struggled to keep up with payments on the cab he shared with his wife. Two other drivers who committed suicide, Danilo Corporan Castillo and Alfredo Perez, were also both known to be under financial pressure, according to the Taxi Workers Alliance—though what exactly motivated the men remains a matter of speculation.
Taxi drivers rally in front of City Hall in late April (Jake Offenhartz / Gothamist)
In response to the deaths—and the familiar thread that runs through each—the driver community’s simmering frustration with the city’s politicians has reached something of a boiling point. On four separate occasions this year, hundreds of them have rallied outside City Hall, pleading with the mayor, the city council, and the Taxi and Limousine Commission to step in and, as one driver put it, “stop killing us.”
Their grief and anger has also translated into political organizing. Last week, the Taxi Workers Alliance released a policy platform developed by drivers across all sectors—Uber included—calling for a cap on for-hire vehicles, and for the same labor standards to be applied to app-based services as yellow cabs. The proposal would also make the regulated taxi meter the minimum fare rate for app-drivers, and bring additional protections against wage theft and other hidden fees taken by the upstart companies.
“We’re just asking for level playing field,” explained Abraham Lobe during a rally last Wednesday. “I know guys who sleep in their cars, while Uber is worth $70 billion.” A longtime yellow cab driver, Lobe switched to Uber in 2014, but quit last year after the company imposed a series of fare cuts, and because he says they weren’t transparent about how he was being paid. For now, he’s back to leasing a medallion to drive a yellow cab—still getting “duped,” but at least by a system that he understands, as he sees it. “At the end of the day, you can’t make a living anywhere right now, no matter how hard you work.”
The feeling is no doubt familiar to workers in any industry in which full time jobs have dissolved under the promise of tech-utopia. But the forces of disruption may be especially sinister—and potentially illegal—in this case, according to former Department of Transportation Commissioner and MTA Board Member Lucius Riccio. “As far as I’m concerned, the medallion is a contract with the city, and the city reneged on that contract,” Riccio tells Gothamist. “The city took their money, continues taking their money in taxes every year, and then all of a sudden Uber comes in and gets those same rights for nothing.”
In Riccio’s view, the circumstances have begun to shift, so that inaction won’t be an option for the city much longer. The faltering subway system and increase in traffic congestion have likely changed the political calculus, he says: “The suicides are the final recognition that the people who warned us how bad this would be have been right all along.”
Some city lawmakers seemed to have recently arrived at this conclusion as well. On Monday, the newly formed City Council Committee on For-Hire Vehicles met to discuss seven bills aimed at curbing the ride-hail services, including a long-stalled proposal to place a one-year cap on for-hire vehicle licenses. A package of regulations proposed by Committee Chair Ruben Diaz Sr. would also create a new category within the TLC for app-based services, with restrictions on the companies’ bases, a prohibition on drivers working for more than one app-based service, and the creation of a $2,000 yearly license fee for all app-based vehicles.
At Monday’s hearing, TLC Commissioner Meera Joshi conceded that a “growth limitation” on for-hire vehicles may be necessary, but said the regulatory body would not support the yearly licensing fee and single-app restrictions. The Taxi Workers Alliance has similar concerns about those two provisions, and argued that the fees should be paid by the companies.
In response to the proposed cap, Alix Fang, a spokesperson for Uber, told Gothamist, “New vehicles keep up with the growing demand for rides outside of Manhattan. Capping the number of Ubers would only hurt the millions of outer borough riders who have long been ignored by yellow taxis and who don't have access to reliable public transit.”
One day after the hearing, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson came out in favor of regulating the for-hire industry, conceding that he'd made a mistake in not supporting the cap on Uber three years earlier. "In hindsight, given what we’ve seen and the explosive growth of this industry and how it’s affected the streets of New York City, I think we should have done more," Johnson told WNYC.
For his part, de Blasio has also signaled an interest in giving regulation another shot, though he’s been cagey on the details. Asked about the spate of suicides during a recent appearance on the Brian Lehrer Show, the mayor responded, “I think the caps are the kind of thing we need to talk about again because this situation has gotten worse since then, both in terms of the pressure that has been put on the medallion owners and everyday taxi drivers.”
A spokesperson for the mayor did not respond to questions about whether the administration would support any of the current bills, or whether the mayor regrets his decision to back down from the cap in 2015.
While the recent legislative developments have been welcomed by drivers, the memory of the city’s aborted attempt at regulation still looms large. “They can talk all the shit they want, but I’m still waiting for them to actually do something about it,” says Simmons. “We’ve been telling them this for years.”
Other drivers are more optimistic about the prospects of legislation. At a recent rally, Eugene Jano—a close friend of Ochisor, the latest suicide victim—said he was confident that they city’s politicians were finally reckoning with their prior failures.
“They don’t really have a choice now,” says Jano. “But it’s a shame: By the time they get around to fixing this, how many more lives will have been destroyed?”
If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide: do not leave the person alone; remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt; and call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.