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The human cost of Uber and Lyft: Life in the dying taxi industry

Mark Gruberg says Uber and Lyft have even taken away the biggest taxi paydays, like Valentines Day, Halloween, and New Years Eve. (Sam Harnett/KQED)
Mark Gruberg says Uber and Lyft have even taken away the biggest taxi paydays, like Valentines Day, Halloween, and New Years Eve. (Sam Harnett/KQED)
Sam Harnett/KQED

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Carl Ditlefsen vacuums out his car as the sun sets on the Green Cab taxi lot. He’s the only cab driver here. Next to the lot is a cluttered two-person office and a tarp lean-to. It covers a portable toilet with a sign that reads “Taxi Driver Parking Only.”

Ditlefsen just finished a slow 11-hour shift, and he's had only one good ride all day. His pay will be less than minimum wage, and these days, that's normal. Ditlefsen's competitors, like Lyft and Uber drivers, routinely make $20 to $30 an hour.

"I used to work four or five days a week, and you were able to survive,” Ditlefsen said. “You weren’t on easy street by any means, but you were able to survive. If you keep me busy that’s all I ask.”

Ditlefsen is wearing a blue hoodie that’s worn and pilled. One of his black sneakers has partially separated from the sole. I asked him if he thought he’d retire anytime soon.

“Oh, I don’t think there’s retirement in sight,” Ditlefsen said. “You drive until you die. Whether you like it or not, a lot of us don’t have retirements to fall onto.”

Taxi drivers like Ditlefsen are being sent to the brink by Uber and Lyft. Over the years, the companies have pushed down the cost of a ride and the earnings for drivers. Cab drivers have tried to fight back, protesting and forming unions. But Uber and Lyft's footprints continue to expand.

Recently, Doug Schifter, a for-hire black-car driver in New York City, went to the steps of City Hall and shot himself to protest the industry’s decimation. Before taking his life, Schifter posted on Facebook about the financial pressure put on drivers like him by services like Uber.

The taxi companies themselves are imploding. In San Francisco, Yellow Cab went bankrupt in 2016. Yellow Cab had around 500 medallions, which the city sold for $250,000 apiece. The company ended up selling for around $810,000, a little more than the sticker price for just three medallions.

Yellow Cab, Luxor and Citywide have all been consolidated into one company. Green Cab, Ditlefsen’s company used to have 19 members. Now it’s down to six. And they don’t even drive full time.

Mark Gruberg is a taxi driver and co-founder of Green Cab, which is driver-owned. Gruberg said many younger drivers have left the industry and those who remain are mostly career drivers. Many of them are stuck with medallions, which can be a big financial burden. The upshot of all this is that there are fewer cabs on the road.

The office for Green Cab, which has been downsized from 19 to six members. (Sam Harnett/KQED)
The office for Green Cab, which has been downsized from 19 to six members. (Sam Harnett/KQED)
Sam Harnett/KQED

Gruberg shows me the company’s shift schedule. It used to be filled all the time. Now the schedule is shot through with yellow, the color for unfilled shifts.

Gruberg says Uber and Lyft have taken away cab drivers’ biggest paydays: Valentine’s Day, Halloween, St Patrick’s Day, even New Year’s Eve. None of these days bring in the business they used to. Gruberg says drivers have lost between a third and half of their income.

At the end of every shift, Deborah Sears, the office manager, adds up what drivers earned.

“There’s days when some guy will come in and say, I had three fares today,' ” Sears said. “It’s like going out there and playing Russian roulette.”

Veena Dubal, a professor of law at UC Hastings, recently conducted an ethnographic study, comparing cab drivers with those for Uber and Lyft. Dubal says identity plays a huge role in the lives of these drivers. “The sort of dignity that people got from their work when they were full-time professional drivers is just not possible with Uber and Lyft."

Dubal said ride apps like Uber and Lyft are not only destroying the stable long-term jobs of the taxi industry, but also the sense of community in the industry.

“Because of how low the fares are they have to drive and drive and drive and drive for an inordinate amount of time in order to eke out a living,” Dubal said. “So there isn’t an opportunity to build community in the same way that there was in the taxi industry.”

Dubal says the “app drivers” are way more atomized, isolated. There’s no taxi lot, less of a sense of community. They just flip on the app and drive, feeding customer demand for cheap, convenient rides. Dubal said “consumers who use these ride services are absolutely complicit” in the destruction of the taxi industry.

Joe Disalvo just arrived at the Green Cab office for his shift. He has a bright, bushy, white mustache and bifocal lenses.

“I’ve heard drivers say things like, 'If I don’t die of old age soon, I’m going to go crazy,' " Disalvo said.

Disalvo has been driving since 1984. He’s one of the career drivers who is locked into the job.

“I’m 74, and if I was younger I’d just leave,” Disalvo said. “I’d get a second job or go do something else, but my time has passed for that. I have to do what I am doing for as long as I can and make it work somehow.”

Disalvo is also stuck financially. He took out a loan to buy a medallion. For Disalvo and many others, it was the de facto taxi retirement plan. Now Disalvo says a medallion is pretty much a worthless piece of tin and a huge financial burden.

“There are drivers who are applying for food stamps and welfare,” Disalvo said, “I haven’t done it, I haven’t had to, but this is the first year I’ve been underwater.”

Disalvo finishes the tiny paper cup of water he’s drinking, crunches it and drops it in the trash. He thanks me for letting him vent. That, he said, will at least keep him going for a little while longer.

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