New York: On a Monday morning in February Doug Schifter, a New York City cab driver, wrote an angry 1700-word Facebook post outlining his despair at the state of his industry. “Companies do not care how they abuse us just so the executives get their bonuses,” the 61-year-old veteran of New York’s taxi and hire car industry wrote. “They have not paid us fair rates for some time now.
“Due to the huge numbers of cars available with desperate drivers trying to feed their families they squeeze rates to below operating costs and force professionals like me out of business.”
Schifter blamed local politicians for allowing ride share services like Uber and Lyft to saturate the city’s streets with cheap competition. “I will not be a slave working for chump change,” he wrote. “I would rather be dead.”
A few hours later he drove to City Hall and shot himself.
Schifter’s suicide was not an isolated event. In March, 65-year-old cab driver Nicanor Ochisor took his life at his home in Queens. Ochisor was distressed by the plummeting value of his taxi medallion – the equivalent of an Australian taxi licence – which he had hoped would fund his retirement.
In 2013, medallions sold for up to US$1.3 million ($1.8 million); now they are worth around $US120,000. In March, New York City taxi drivers held a rally where they laid out four life-sized coffins on the steps of City Hall, representing colleagues they said had lost their lives because of the financial pressure caused by the growth of ride-sharing apps.
It was just one of many protests organised by the union representing the city’s drivers, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, demanding the city place a limit on the number of Uber and Lyft drivers on the road.
In August, they won. Last month New York City Council approved a cap on Uber drivers – the first of its kind in the US. No new Uber or Lyft licences will be granted for at least a year while the council examines the impact of ride-sharing services on the city.
The council also voted to create a minimum wage for drivers of $US17.22 an hour, making it the most sweeping regulation of ride-sharing apps introduced anywhere in the country.
As well as stopping drivers from falling into poverty, New York mayor Bill de Blasio said the measure would “stop the influx of cars contributing to the congestion grinding our streets to a halt”. It is estimated that 40 per cent of Ubers on the road in New York at any time are vacant, adding to the already heavy traffic.
Uber responded furiously to the decision, saying it would make it harder for New Yorkers to get a ride – particularly in outer boroughs like the Bronx or Queens, where it is difficult to find a taxi driver.
“The city’s 12-month pause on new vehicle licences will threaten one of the few reliable transportation options while doing nothing to fix the subways or ease congestion,” an Uber spokeswoman said.
Uber was not the only colossus of the “sharing economy” that New York had in its sights. Just days before capping ride-sharing licences, De Blasio signed into law new rules requiring home sharing site Airbnb to hand over detailed data on its users. There would be heavy fines for the company if it failed to do so.
Airbnb was so outraged that it last week sued the city council in a bid to stop the new rules coming into effect in February.
Until recently, when they were glossy new additions to the economy, Uber and Airbnb had managed to escape regulations that applied to their traditional rivals in the taxi and hotel industries.
Now one of the biggest cities in the world – and one of the companies’ most important markets – has declared the jig is up.
Dr Veena Dubal, an associate professor of law at the University of California, says New York’s recent moves will send a signal to governments around the world, including Australia’s, that it is time to more aggressively regulate these services. “These companies have used political connections and money to create a regulatory environment that is favourable to them,” says Dubal, an expert in the sharing economy.”Now cities around the world are going to feel emboldened to follow New York and enact similar policies. This could have very broad implications.”