Is It Fair To Blame The Gig Economy For NY's Rise In Taxi Driver Suicides?

Is It Fair To Blame The Gig Economy For NY's Rise In Taxi Driver Suicides?

Here’s a headline that those outside of the Big Apple may have missed:

‘Another Taxi Driver in Debt Takes His Life. That’s 5 in 5 Months.’ (New York Times)

No doubt, New York has its perks. The nightlife is unmatched in the States. Living amongst a youthful population of ambitious professionals can’t be put at a price. Few cities outside of Paris or New Orleans can claim to even contend with the city’s vast array of top-shelf cuisine.

Even so, the whack-a-mole nature of frighteningly aggressive homeless lunatics, rent checks that make your eyes water as you write them, daily commutes on electrified, underground sardine can cars shared by the hygienically inept and mentally unstable, and few reminders that lawns are real things that really do exist are reason enough to drive plenty of steadily employed New Yorkers mad, if just from time to time.

But, for most, mad doesn’t mean suicidal.  

Outside of the devastation heaped upon the lives of traders and bankers by financial crises, few professions have seen a slew of suicides linked to industry-wide circumstances quite like what New York’s yellow cab drivers have experienced in recent months.

As the above headlines indicates, five cabbies have taken their lives in a matter of five months.

Yu Mein “Kenny” Chow is the latest case of a cabbie ending his life due to complete and utter debt-induced despair.

It’s almost certain that more are to follow. The sense of hopelessness among New York’s revered – OK, this is probably not the best term, but still, they’re iconic? – fleet of yellow cab drivers is universal. It would be far too kind to state that such hopelessness isn’t in large part the product of grossly negligent financial decisions and lack of foresight by the cabbies themselves.

Chow’s case illustrates a common theme.

‘Yu Mein Chow had taken out a loan seven years ago to buy a $700,000 medallion that gave him the right to operate a cab…’ (NYT)

That’s where each of these tragic stories begins. The concept that anybody would mortgage their lives in order to pay $700,000 just to operate a cab seems crazy to most, and if you could ask the deceased former drivers whose suicides have brought this development onto the national stage, it is crazy.

But it wasn’t always that way.

The medallion system once made sense as a way to limit the already bumper-to-bumper flow of chaotic traffic on New York City’s gridlocked streets. With cabs serving as the primary means for non-Subway riding professionals to get around the city for decades, the price tag, once upon a time, did not seem particularly exorbitant, considering that it would allow a steady profession for life.

Or so many thought.

The gig economy has unalterably changed the cabbie market for the worse. Many would argue that it has rendered the industry a limping dinosaur in a matter of years.

And the industry itself has failed to adapt to a market of people who see the value in having a guaranteed ride at the precise time they desire or need. Instead of demanding that the higher-ups in the cab fleets develop similar ride-sharing technology or competitive rates, most cabbies have resorted instead to heckling city councilmen and demanding higher commissions, a short-sighted viewpoint which is symptomatic of the larger issue.

The issue of cabbie indebtedness is quite simple to understand. The value of owning and driving a cab in nearly every city, and especially New York City – the mecca of Yellow Cabs – has dropped precipitously. But the price tag required to attain that right to operate a yellow cab has remained the same.

Tragically, the men and women who failed to see foresee and/or take seriously the increasing trend toward ride sharing services put themselves at unsustainable financial risk by operating as if the times were never going to change.

New York City wasn’t going to be able to legislate out private enterprise – ride sharing – forever. Municipal governments have never been the all-protecting nannies they often masquerade as, and once the threat of Uber and Lyft emerged, not one cabbie can be forgiven for leveraging their home, financial future, or both to acquire the rights to drive a cab in New York City.

However, the plight of the cabbie isn’t limited to those who buried their heads deep in the sand and got in the game only recently. Those sadists never had – and arguably never really deserved – a shot at paying down their debt from the outset.

But the rise in ride-sharing services has meant that many cabbies who thought they could coast to retirement are now put at risk of succumbing to their financiers. Many of these individuals never could have anticipated ride sharing, as it was decades in the future. Yet, these hardworking cabbies have put up with the drunk, the surly, and who knows what else for most of their lives, only to face potential ruin because of disruptive innovation at the tail-end of their careers.

‘On Monday morning, Doug Schifter, a livery driver in his early 60s, killed himself with a shotgun in front of City Hall in Lower Manhattan…He was now sometimes forced to work more than 100 hours a week to survive, he said; when he had started out in the 1980s, a 40-hour week was fairly typical.’ (NYT)

Among those Schifter blamed in his Facebook-dispatched suicide note: New York’s politicians, at both the state and municipal levels, for failing to stanch the flow of cabs on the road due to the wishes of elites.

Agree with Schifter’s viewpoint or not, most will be able to agree that Schifter deserved, considering his years of service, to at least not be left to fend for himself by the cab company, or even the government. He is, quite frankly, one of the many cabbies who don’t deserve to be left out to dry by Silicon Valley.

But he was left on his own, working 100 hour weeks in his 60s. And it became far too much to bear, understandably so.

Which begs the underlying question: what, if anything, can be done to ease the burden of the cabbie?

Free markets are great. Ride sharing is a godsend in many respects. But whatever happened to that safety net taxpayers shell out to keep in place year after year?

New York City is perpetually broke, and Mayor Bill de Blasio is as big a spendthrift as the city has seen. But, one would think that, in conjunction with the cab services selling the medallion rights, some sort of re-compensation or fee reduction packages could be made, at least for the veterans.

For those like Doug Schifter. Before more take their lives on the steps of City Hall, as Schiefter did.

Perhaps, considering the scope and scale of the fleet of cabs roving around the city, that’s unrealistic.

Regardless, a continued trend of cabbie suicides is unlikely to enact any sort of real change in any of the many cities where the average Joe really is nothing more than a statistic to those who reside 40 stories up in Manhattan high rises instead of in modest two-story homes on the streets of Queens or government-built housing in Bronx.

As tragic as these suicides are, there is blame to go around. Blame to many cabbies themselves for taking on such immense debt for, essentially, a license to drive. Blame to those selling the license at – undeniably at a certain point in time – price points they knew were exorbitant and untenable. And, to a city who failed in its fight to insulate an industry or remain financially solvent enough to assist in alleviating the effects of an entire New York-centric industry in a free-fall towards extinction.

Ironically, if there’s one party that can’t be blamed, it’s the ride share services and their drivers.

After all, this is America, and they’re just doing their jobs.