Before He Died, a New York Taxi Driver Wrote About How the Gig Economy Ruined His Life
Douglas Schifter killed himself in front of City Hall this week.
Image: Marcin Wichary/Flickr
Editor's Note: If you or someone around you is exhibiting suicidal tendencies or self-harm please reach out to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
We will never know the full story of Douglas Schifter, a New York cab and limo driver who completed suicide earlier this week in front of City Hall. Those of us who don’t know him personally have no special insight into his mental health, or what else was going on in his life.
But in his final Facebook note and in trade magazine columns written under his byline, Schifter left a trail of commentary about the stress of surviving as a driver in New York, and with it, a view into how the so-called disruption led by Uber and Lyft, and cities’ mishandling of it, weighs dangerously on workers.
Schifter’s note (which Facebook has since taken down), posted hours before he died, chronicles the economic struggles of a livery driver in New York. He says he worked at least 100 hours every week, and still ended his career in financial ruin.
He blamed the powers that be in New York, pointing at the politicians who allowed more cabs on the road, flooding in more competition, and then adding green cabs too. “There was always meant to be numbers of cars below the demand. That was the guarantee of a steady income,” Schifter wrote.
For many taxi drivers, this influx of rideshares and cabs has indeed drowned out the livelihoods that they were sometimes working to build for years. In New York, there are about 40,000 yellow cab drivers, but Uber drivers have outnumbered them since 2015, a number which doesn’t distinguish those who also provide both regular taxi and Uber services.
We’ve come to a point where neither the Uber drivers nor the taxi drivers have a stable income.
It’s not clear what kind of regulation would help drivers stay afloat— Mayor Bill de Blasio’s attempts to cap the number of Uber drivers in New York have failed so far, largely because of the company’s influence. And the only move toward drivers’ rights here has been enforcing the ability to tip on the Uber app.
Uber drivers have long been fighting unfair pricing, as Motherboard has previously reported. The gig economy’s grey areas have left much room for exploitation. But we’ve come to a point where neither the Uber drivers nor the taxi drivers have a stable income. Taxi drivers are in debt. Uber drivers can make up to $60,000 per year in New York, according to the company’s estimates, but this number varies depending on the price of car insurance, gas expenses, and hours they work.
Even beyond the supply-demand issue, other policies make drivers vulnerable to the whims of politicians. For trade publication Black Car News, Schifter wrote dozens of columns about his job, calling out specific, proposed regulations that he said would target taxi drivers. A congestion policy, for example, has been touted as a way to limit traffic by charging cars a fee to enter New York City. As recently as January, a plan for this seems to be in the works.
But these policies, Schifter pointed out, would force drivers to pay just to do their jobs. “We are being targeted as a cash cow by the government, milking us here there and everywhere we go. All of the agencies want our blood money.” He went on to argue that congestion pricing didn’t work in London, though it reduced traffic in the city’s core by 26 percent in four years.
His columns went into the kind of details that only drivers who have spent years on New York City’s streets would know—chronicling the hazards of bike lane positions, trucks on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and pointing out how police crack down on cab drivers’ every move. Schifter called repeatedly for more cab drivers to unionize against companies like Uber, and forecasted the demise of the taxi industry.
The comments section below Schifter’s posts—on Facebook, and on Reddit, where Uber drivers discussed his final letter—reveals some mixed reactions. A few say Schifter wasn’t able to adapt to the changing times, and expected to make money just as he did when he first started in the industry.
Others commiserated. “It needs to be regulated again so the taxi drivers can have a life besides working,” wrote a commenter who identified himself as a fellow driver named Thomas Reid. Another person seemed like he’d been recently convinced against joining the taxi industry, writing: “I was on the verge of getting my [taxi certification] license, but after reading articles in regards to the issue with livery drivers these days, I may have to reconsider and look for another way to make a living.”
It bears repeating that we don’t know exactly why Schifter completed suicide. But from the reaction to his death, the vigil held in his name, and the conversation around it, it’s clear that many see it as the latest cry for help in a troubled industry. In a way, that says more than what he could have said himself.
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