By Brian Prowse-Gany and Joyzel Acevedo
Last month, yellow-cab driver and family man Yu Mein “Kenny” Chow tragically took his own life by throwing himself into the East River at 86th Street in New York City, just feet away from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s residence at Gracie Mansion. The sole provider for his family, with a wife battling cancer and a daughter entering college, Chow struggled to pay off a $700,000 loan for his cab medallion.
Chow was the fifth cabdriver within six months to take his own life. There was Danilo Corporan Castillo, who jumped off a roof in Harlem in December, a suicide note later found in his pocket scrawled on the back of a Taxi & Limousine Commission summons. The latest was yellow cab lease driver Abdul Saleh, who was found dead in his rented Brooklyn room on Friday, June 15.
Six weeks after Castillo, Douglas Schifter — a lifelong driver who possessed a legendary enthusiasm and passion for his job — fatally shot himself in the face in front of City Hall. The suicide note he wrote on Facebook stated that the city’s failure to regulate Uber had destroyed his livelihood.
“How many more suicides are we supposed to see?” asks Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. “Enough is enough. There needs to be a real urgency in the city responding to this crisis.”
Founded in 1998, the Taxi Workers Alliance campaigns for the rights of over 50,000 New York City taxicab drivers. “I’m an old school organizer,” says Desai. “I still think people have power. … We may not be in power as workers, but when we organize we unleash our power.”
New York City’s cab industry has been turned upside down by the recent saturation of cars for hire due to the increase of ride sharing services such as Uber and Lyft. New York City, which has the largest taxi fleet in the country, is an example of what can go wrong when ride sharing services remain unregulated.
In 1937 the taxi medallion system was created by the municipality as a way to limit the number of taxicabs on the road. There are just approximately 13,500 medallions in New York City today, and they were once considered one of the best investments in America. A source of retirement for many taxi drivers, individual medallions were valued in 2013 at $1 million; today they are worth between $150,000 and $250,000.
The influx of ride sharing services has completely destroyed the value of medallions. Today, 130,000 vehicles compete for the same set of fares within the city. Uber alone has a fleet of 70,000 — a monstrous number when compared with the capped 13,500 yellow cabs.
“How do you compete?” asks Desai. “It’s impossible, it’s a chokehold. … People are trying to make ends meet, they are trying to raise their families, they are trying to settle roots in this country and earn a decent living from a hard day’s work.” Desai regularly fields phone calls from drivers who are seeking help for thoughts of suicide and tries to find solutions for drivers facing potential homelessness.
Uber recently released a statement on the suicides, saying, “Drivers who own individual medallions have been left behind by change and exploited by lenders, and we support action that eases their financial burden.” This infuriated Desai: “They are now using the suicides as a way to buy out the medallions so they can essentially monopolize.”
In 2015, Mayor de Blasio tried to initiate a bill that would temporarily set a cap on all Uber vehicles for one year, but the bill was dropped after Uber spent over $10 million on ad campaigns dismissing the mayor’s idea. In 2016, Uber and Lyft spent more money on lobbyists than Amazon, Walmart and Microsoft combined. “It feels like city officials, from the mayor down to his regulatory agency, they’re afraid to take on these companies that spent $10 million in attack ads against them just three years ago,” states Desai. “And since then, these companies’ wealth has gotten a lot greater.”
Led by Desai, the Taxi Workers Alliance is trying desperately to get the city to act before further tragedies occur. “In our campaign, we’ve been calling for policies that would protect full-time work for drivers in this industry,” she says. “We need a cap on the number of vehicles — 130,000 cars competing for the same set of fares is just not sustainable.”
Meanwhile the drivers continue to struggle in desperation, as posters hang from the spot where Kenny Chow took his own life, reading, “Rest in peace, beloved father, husband, friend, NYC taxi driver.”