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From cab to Uber to cab, drivers try to find a way to make a living

Taxi drivers in Philly face a difficult choice: Drive a taxi for an industry that in Philadelphia has lost almost half its customers, or drive for Uber and Lyft, which puts strain on a personal vehicle and creates intense competition with a seemingly ever-growing population of drivers.

Shah Golamkade, a cab driver who switched to Uber and back to cab driving, is ready for a fare at Eighth and Market Streets.
Shah Golamkade, a cab driver who switched to Uber and back to cab driving, is ready for a fare at Eighth and Market Streets.Read moreDavid Swanson / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Three cushions buttressed the driver's seat of Shah Golamkader's taxicab.

"These are for pain," Golamkader, 46, explained.

Driving up to 14 hours a day is no good for his ailing back. Not ideal for his high blood pressure, either.

For an immigrant from Bangladesh, though, driving was a job that could bring in $400 to $500 a week — enough to pay the bills.

That changed when ride sharing came to Philadelphia in 2014. Golamkader, like many of the city's 1,500 cabdrivers, has spent four years trying to earn what he did before Uber and Lyft. That meant switching from driving a taxi to driving for Uber, and then, in 2017, switching back again.

Golamkader's weekly earnings are down about $200 compared with four years ago.

Drivers face difficult choices in this changing environment: Work through a ride-hailing app, put strain on their personal vehicles, and compete with a seemingly ever-growing population of drivers, or work for a cab industry that is bleeding customers.

In 2017, taxis made $43 million less than in 2014 and had 4.2 million fewer fares, according to Philadelphia Parking Authority data. The value of a medallion, the auctioned permit that allows a cab to operate, was $500,000 in 2014, compared with $38,000 in April.

The pressure is wearing on the city's cabbies, said Ron Blount, president of the Taxi Workers Alliance of Philadelphia.

"It still required a lot of hours," he said. "Drivers were still working 12 hours a day, six days a week, but they could still make a living."

Now, he said, it's difficult for a cabdriver to earn minimum wage.

There's rage toward the PPA, which cabdrivers say has failed to provide rules for ride-share vehicles, something state legislation allows it to do. The PPA has said the glut of ride-share vehicles in the city has overwhelmed its regulatory resources, and it has proposed a 50-cent tax on every ride-share trip to compensate. However, it also wants to impose the same fee on cabs, something drivers say would inflict more pain on the industry.

The PPA is still working on new rules for ride-share vehicles, said Christine Kirlin, director of the PPA division that oversees cabs and ride-share companies. In any case, most of the complaints she hears from the cab industry would require action from the legislature, she said.

A recent New York Times story about the suicides of four professional drivers in New York City this year cited the for-hire car industry's difficulties.

People in the cab industry say a shift back to cab driving, like Golamkader's, has become increasingly common as drivers find the best way to maximize their earnings.

Another driver who made the switch, Max Leventhal, 31, said that at first the money driving for Uber was good. But both he and Golamkader described driving for Uber as a gig with diminishing rewards.

Golamkader first drove for Uber Black in 2014 and did well, but UberX, Uber's primary ride-share service, eventually took his customers, he said. He switched to UberX, but as more drivers signed on to the app, his profits dwindled. By the time he left in 2017, he said, he was making about the same money he now makes as a cabdriver, but was putting miles on his personal car that led to maintenance he had to pay for.

"At the end of the day, I had no money," he said.

Uber noted opportunity for drivers with the pool of new riders in Philadelphia growing by about 40,000 each month.

Still, the shrinking profits Golamkader experienced are common, said David King, assistant professor at Arizona State University-Tempe, who has studied the cabs and ride-share companies in New York City.

He described Uber and Lyft in the midst of an arms-race-like competition, in which both companies are flooding cities with vehicles to take a commanding share of the market. The more drivers, though, the less money any one can make. Philadelphia now has more than 20,000 ride-share vehicles.

"The drivers are the sorry losers in it," King said. "That's kind of a larger narrative about deregulation and technology-enabled gig economy."

Ironically, the switch back to taxi driving for Golamkader was possible because of ride share's disruptions. He paid $450 a week to lease a cab before ride share came to Philadelphia. Because the value of medallions plummeted, his lease now is a more affordable $200 a week.

The taxi industry is seeking to compete both by adopting ride share's strengths and emphasizing traditional cabs' differences.

Ride-share companies pride themselves on having expanded for-hire vehicle service to poorly served city neighborhoods and for reinventing the industry's business model.

"Competition from Uber and other ride-sharing services has created more choice for drivers, forcing taxi bosses to up their game so all drivers are better treated," said Uber spokeswoman Danielle Filson.

Indeed, the success of Uber and Lyft has pushed cabdrivers to keep their vehicles cleaner and to be more aware of customer service, Leventhal said.

Almost every cab in the city can be hailed through the app Curb, which is similar to ride-hailing apps with some taxi-specific features, such as allowing payments through the app for a cab hailed off the street. The 215-GET-A-CAB app, which last fall began dispatching for the combined fleets of Freedom, PHL Taxi, and 215-GET-A-CAB, is a rebranding of Curb, said Jason Gross, vice president of mobile at Curb.

Since the upgrade and partnership, driven by the need to compete, the app accounts for 35 percent of all taxi passengers for the partnered companies, said Danielle Friedman, the lawyer for 215-GET-A-CAB.

Taxis could compete in new ways with services that connect riders with public transit centers, offer better service for people with physical limitations, and provide nonemergency medical transportation, Gross said.

"We think there are a lot of untapped markets that taxis haven't participated in," he said.

The legislation legalizing ride-share businesses in Philadelphia allowed cabs also to increase their rates during busy times — which Uber calls surge pricing —  but so far, none has done it, the PPA's Kirlin said. People in the industry see a consistent rate as an asset that could attract customers, she said.

Leventhal noted cabdrivers' training, pointing to five days of testing to memorize city landmarks and the best routes. And he dismissed the Uber and Lyft culture of the chatty driver.

"A cabdriver is a professional driver," Leventhal said. "He's not there to be your friend."

Kirlin, though, said the cab industry has squandered opportunities. The 2016 legislation gave cab companies less stringent inspection requirements and the ability to do their own background checks. The condition of vehicles has noticeably declined since then, Kirlin said, and the authority has found owners that aren't doing background checks.

Some drivers still fight battles long since decided. About 15 percent of complaints to the PPA cite drivers who refused to take a credit card, something required since 2005, Kirlin said.

Even if cabs fully embraced professionalism and new technology, it might not be enough to resuscitate the industry, Kirlin said. The ease that drivers can enter ride share and the adjustable rates will tilt the hire car business toward more part-time drivers.

"I think it's likely going to be hard for the taxi market to go back to anything that resembles 2008 or earlier," she said.

Meanwhile, cabbies and ride-share drivers alike continue to feel the squeeze. As president of the Taxi Workers Alliance, Blount is increasingly interested in trying to find common ground between taxi and ride-share drivers, he said. He's looking for ways to increase ride-share drivers' earnings, as well as  reducing the leasing costs for a cab.

For Golamkader, life as a driver allows him to drop his two children off at school and take 10 minutes a day for prayer at a city mosque (his only break other than a few minutes for lunch). The flexibility, though, is increasingly untenable.

"If I could find any job, I go," he said. "If you're longtime driving a taxi cab or Uber, you have no money."