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I am fascinated with the rideshare industry. It has created opportunities for millions of people by just getting in their private cars and driving strangers around. All this came at a heavy cost to tens of thousands of cab drivers around the country. Uber & Lyft disrupting theTaxi industry is stating the obvious. I have been talking to veteran cabbies all over the country, one of them left such an impression on me and he was so eloquent that I couldn't help but collaborate with him on an article. His name is Patrick K. and he lives in Florida and I hope you enjoy his story. For part II of the story click here.
I live in Florida, it is hot and humid most of the year but I'm too stubborn to replace my home AC. It died in late September about 7 years ago, at which time I decided to tough it out until the next summer. Summer can begin in May, but by June the heat and humidity are here in full force until the end of October. I found I was saving over a hundred dollars a month on my energy bill without an AC, and today that's a much greater consideration than it was in the past. I drive from 6pm-6am so if I get home and to sleep by say, 8:30 am, the heat is going to wake me up any time from 11:30-1:30. I may catch another hour, but I'm lucky if I get five uninterrupted hours of sleep before my next 12 hour shift. If it's not the heat it's the neighbor's barking Yorkies, the weed whacker next door, or the recent Sunday morning tree trimming project involving the use of an electric chainsaw, by the same neighbor who owns the Yorkies.
I have ample time to think about these things as I sit parked at a designated taxi stand downtown. It's Friday night and the streets are flooded with Uber/Lyft vehicles from out of town. I began driving a cab in 2003. It was economic necessity as I had been unemployed for a couple of months and exhausted my rainy day savings. Part of my motivation was also that I thought it would be a good way to learn how to drive. Prior to that and up to the present day my lifestyle choices allowed me to live without the necessity of owning a vehicle. I didn't own a vehicle and hadn't since 1974, I'd gotten by just fine without one. In fact, 1972-'74 were the only time I owned vehicles in my life. I owned a motorcycle which was a gift I received in 1993 and drove for 12 years. It was destroyed by the floodwaters of Hurricane Wilma in Oct. of 2005. In 1972 while living in New Jersey, I had purchased a 1970 red VW bug convertible which I sold later that year for $250. Then I bought a tan 1969 Chevy Sport Van. In late 1973 I left it parked on the edge of a farmer's field near Matawan, N.J., with the permission of the farmer who owned the land. I didn't return to New Jersey until a visit in 1992 and the Chevy Sport Van was still sitting where I had abandoned it. It had sunk into the earth down to the chassis and the farmer was using it to store corn.
At some point a long time ago everything that was new, challenging, frustrating, puzzling, distressing or shocking about driving a cab became familiar and commonplace to me. I learned, and continue to learn from experience. I am about as comfortable as I can be in an environment in which I work. Most of the time I am able to cope effectively with the stress that is unique to that environment. I work on the weekends from 6pm-6am, so I am dealing mostly with passengers, both locals and tourists, who have been drinking. They are in varying stages of inebriation, often to excess. It might sound kind of crude, but among local taxi drivers it is common knowledge that if you drive a cab during the day you deal with the traffic, while driving at night you deal with the drunks. There is some overlap, but it's accurate to say they are two entirely different jobs and you have to choose one or the other. It's the difference between night and day. They both require patience and tolerance but have distinctly separate qualities. Personal temperament might be the deciding factor as to which you choose. A former night driver I know who switched to days did so because he couldn't deal with drunk people anymore. He said the very thought of any such encounter made the hair stand up on the back of his neck.
When I sat for my interview in the office of the general manager of the taxi company that hired me, I was asked if I wanted to drive during the day or at night. I had no idea, no preference and no answer. There happened to have been a taxi driver by the name of "Lucky" who was present at that moment, and observing my hesitation he volunteered the information that "It's more fun driving at night". So that's how I chose.
As for driving, you have to exercise constant vigilance. The traffic is a chaotic mix of vehicles, scooters, bicyclists, skateboarders and pedestrians, many of them tourists who are distracted by one thing or another; the exotic sights and the tropical scenery or the hypnotic glow of their smartphone as it navigates them into jeopardy. Excluding for the most part those who are driving cars, because it's the weekend the rest are often under the influence of alcohol to a greater or lesser degree, for better or for worse. I often think of it as a video game where the object is to avoid hitting the targets, and you must also multitask while playing the game. Generally speaking though from about midnight on the traffic begins to thin out and driving from one side of town to the other can be a breeze. As the night progresses, getting into the early hours often the only vehicles on the road are police cars and taxis.
When I began driving a taxi I was pleased and relieved to find that I was making decent money from the start, despite my lack of experience. However, in retrospect I can't say that I recommend it as the best way to learn how to drive or make up for a lack of experience behind the wheel. It's too nerve wracking. In a short amount of time my taxi earnings increased considerably. My income became comparable to the years I worked as a commercial fisherman. Very good, and I got to go home every day instead of being out to sea for 2-3 weeks engaged in brutal, nearly constant labor. Another bit of generally accepted wisdom among local taxi drivers is that you must put away some money when times are busy, to get you through the times that are slow. That's a true fact. There were slow stretches. I fell a little bit behind sometimes, but I always caught up and then I even thrived, I prospered. The overall economics trended upwards for a long time. The taxi industry already had a well established reputation of being a reliable entry point for people joining the middle class of this country, many of them recently arrived immigrants. Furthermore it provided the opportunity for upward mobility with the chance of a better life for the children of those immigrants who became drivers. In the town where I live, which survives from the tourist industry, it's a great way to earn money, providing you can tolerate the working conditions and environment.
One of the most important factors that influence how much money I earn in a 12 hour shift is determined by the total number of cabs that are on the road at any given time. The less cabs the better. In my city there are a fixed number of taxi licenses, (which are known as medallions in places like NYC). At one time there was a total of about 76 licenses, so that would be the maximum number of taxis in play at any given time. Sometimes there aren't enough cabs on the road to service the demand, such as when it rains, but that's rare. More typically there are too many taxis operating, and as a result all the drivers earn less money. When this occurs for any duration the drivers, who are independent contractors, eventually begin complaining to the fleet owners, who make their money by leasing the cabs to us drivers. It's what I would describe as a cordial symbiotic relationship, but those of a more cynical perspective might view it as parasitical.
Every relationship is unique though, subject to change, and the owner of the company I drive for was a cab driver before he became the owner of the taxi company and 45 taxi licenses. I see that as advantageous to me personally as well as generally, in terms of his ability to relate to us as cab drivers and such has been my experience, to an extent. He is also a dispatcher and I have fond memories of many years working lucrative 12 hours Friday night shifts every week while he sat at the microphone, dispatching all of us cab drivers with great skill, slightly acerbic humor and lightning fast sarcastic wit. It was a pleasure and one of the most enjoyable workplace experiences I've ever had.
When times are slow and enough drivers complain long enough about the excessive number of taxis on the road, the fleet owner might eventually respond by scheduling less taxis, even though it reduces his profits. If drivers aren't earning adequate income during their shifts, at a certain point they'll just call in sick or simply not bother showing up. Even though the company policy is to charge the drivers who pull a "no show" for the full twelve hour lease anyway, I think it's always been understood that there has to be some give and take. Otherwise drivers will leave to find other employment or reduce the number of shifts they work, and ultimately it has a negative impact on the company itself. At the company I drive for there was at one time a long list of applicants waiting for a chance to become a taxi driver. There was an awareness among us drivers that we were all easily replaceable and subject to being fired at will. At the same time I think that the owner recognized the advantages and importance of having seasoned, knowledgeable and committed drivers who could behave professionally and perform their job safely and effectively. If you weren't a complete reprobate or some kind of loose cannon, I guess you could feel secure in keeping your job. No question that the fleet owner has the upper hand, and being an independent contractor has many disadvantages, but if you're earning enough money that you can actually thrive, (and you could), then there is a reasonable balance.
After reading Part I, do you see the similarities between rideshare companies and cabs? Today, millions of Uber/Lyft drivers face the same challenges as cabbies do. Can we finally call Uber/Lyft cab companies with an app?