PHILADELPHIA – Three cushions buttressed the driver’s seat of Shah Golamkader’s taxi cab.
“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.
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.
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.
“The drivers are the sorry losers in it,” King said. “That’s kind of a larger narrative about deregulation and technology-enabled gig economy.”