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World For New York’s cabbies, an industry’s fall exacts a deadly cost

A photo of Nicanor Ochisor at his home in New York, April 20, 2018. On March 16, Mr. Ochisor died by suicide in the garage at his home in Queens.

KHOLOOD EID/The New York Times News Service

For nearly 30 years, Nicanor Ochisor drove his yellow taxicab on the streets of New York. He and his wife, both immigrants from Romania, would alternate shifts to maximize their hours on the road. Mr. Ochisor planned to use his taxi medallion – which he bought in 1989 and gave him the right to operate the cab – to finance their retirement.

But in recent years, as ride-hailing apps grew in popularity, business deteriorated. Mr. Ochisor worked longer hours for less money and the value of his medallion, previously a rock-solid investment, plummeted. On March 16, Mr. Ochisor died by suicide in the garage at his home in Queens.

Mr. Ochisor’s death was not an isolated event. In January, a professional driver for more than four decades killed himself in a parked car steps from New York’s City Hall. He left behind a Facebook post decrying the destruction of a “once-thriving industry” that instead had become “the new slavery.” Two livery cab drivers also died by suicide in the past six months.

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Such deaths are unprecedented, long-time observers of the taxi industry say, and cast a harsh spotlight on the wrenching transformation under way in the city’s cab business. While each suicide was the result of individual and sometimes unknowable factors, there is no question that cabbies in New York are under increasing financial pressure.

Competition has increased dramatically over the past five years and incomes have fallen by a third, taxi drivers say, leaving them unable at times to cover the expenses of operating their vehicles.

The yellow taxi that was driven by Helen Ochisor and her husband Nicanor, parked outside their Queens home in New York on April 20, 2018.

KHOLOOD EID/The New York Times News Service

Meanwhile, the prices for taxi medallions have tumbled. Known colloquially as “tins,” the medallions were highly sought-after investments that conferred the right to operate one of New York’s roughly 13,000 yellow cabs. Drivers saved and borrowed to buy medallions, which in turn financed homes, college tuitions and retirements. In 2014, a taxi medallion sold for a record US$1.3-million. Now medallions change hands for as little as US$180,000.

The number of for-hire vehicles on the city’s streets has more than doubled in the past five years, thanks to the increasing popularity of ride-hailing apps such as Uber, Lyft, Juno and Via. About 130,000 vehicles are now available to take passengers, with 80,000 of them working for app companies, according to the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission. The influx has worsened the already-famous congestion in places such as Manhattan. In midtown, the average driving speed has fallen from 10.5 kilometres an hour to 7.5 kilometres an hour since 2012, a city official said last year.

Three years ago, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio attempted to cap the number of for-hire vehicles on New York’s streets but backed down after Uber led a concerted campaign in opposition to the policy. Now, prodded by drivers and their advocates, the city is once again considering some type of restriction on the number of vehicles as well as other measures to bolster driver pay.

The history of the New York taxi medallion system dates back to the 1930s, when the city imposed a cap on drivers who had surged into its streets. “Here we have an industry that’s been with us for over 100 years and regulated for 80 years,” said Samuel Schwartz, a former New York traffic commissioner. “And in five years, this other industry comes along and wipes it out.”

Companies such as Uber and Lyft offer a service highly valued by the public at a cost equal to – or sometimes less than – that of yellow taxis, leading to exponential growth, Mr. Schwartz said. They now carry more passengers a day in New York than taxis do. The taxi business has “never changed this rapidly,” he said, leaving policy makers struggling to respond.

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Cira Angeles hosts a weekly Spanish-language radio show in New York called La Hora del Conductor – the Driver’s Hour – and her callers are drivers of livery cabs, which operate mostly in boroughs other than Manhattan. Over the past year, she said, more callers have talked about the economic strains they face, both from increasing competition and regulatory fines.

A couple of callers sounded desperate, she said. One man said “I feel sometimes like taking my car and just letting it drive and crash into something,” Ms. Angeles recalled. “I said, ’Well, you have your family, let’s talk about your family … and he said, ‘That’s the only reason why I have not gone crazy.’”

On a rainy afternoon last month, drivers gathered at City Hall for one of several recent protests. They held signs with the names and photos of the four drivers who had killed themselves. They chanted “Save our jobs now!” and “Dignity! Respect!”

Pat Johnson, 41, drives a yellow cab which he leases from a garage. He said he was not surprised when he learned of the suicides. “All of our incomes have plummeted, ” he said. The city’s figures back him up: Five years ago, taxis logged 500,000 trips a day, collecting US$6.4-million in fares. In February, the latest figures available, taxis took 300,000 trips a day for US$4.1 million in fares.

Aziz Khan, 62, began driving a cab 30 years ago and bought his own medallion in 2005. Loans were easy to come by and he used the medallion as collateral. Now “the business is going all the way down to the ground,” he said. “I cannot pay the mortgage and I don’t know what to do.”

At the protest, drivers and their advocates framed the issue as one of earning a fair wage. “This is a struggle about the workers, workers trying to defend a full-time job in a gig economy which offers nothing but poverty pay,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. The days when a taxi driver’s income could sustain a family “feel like a distant memory.”

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