Rivals on the Road, Uber and Cab Drivers Share a Lot of Airport Problems
By Humera Lodhi and Elena Mejia
Yellow-cab and ride-share drivers are often at odds, but they share struggles and habits. One example: To avoid burning gas and Manhattan regulations, they often head to the airports in Queens, where passengers — especially tourists — will pay higher fares.
But the scene at airport holding lots includes long waits and dicey odds.
“This is like a lottery system. If I get the lottery, I can get a $50 fare. Otherwise, I’ll be here around two hours and then I will get maybe a $10,” said Foezulleh Babul, a driver from Sri Lanka who has worked as a cab driver for roughly 22 years.
Peak construction threatens profits
And at LaGuardia, it has gotten worse. Babul and hundreds of other yellow cab drivers may spend up to two hours in the taxi holding lot on Terminal A. As the $8 billion redevelopment project at the airport reaches peak construction, other taxi lots have closed.
Passengers at other terminals seeking taxis must take a shuttle through the only one-way street that is not under construction. This has lengthened wait times for many drivers.
“Sometimes I’m here more than two hours, and I leave without a passenger,” said Muhammad Khalid, a cab driver from Pakistan, so he gives up and goes home or to the city. “This construction is very slow. It’s no good.”
Khalid and Babul use the wait time to stretch, get snacks at a nearby 7–11 and talk to other drivers. There is also a space for drivers of Muslim faith to pray. Underneath a shaded tent in the corner, prayer rugs are spread on the ground. Water stations line the edge of the tent, convenient for drivers needing to perform ablution, or the ritualistic wash before prayer.
Tourists are a welcome relief
When they can finally pick up passengers — mainly tourists — from the shuttle, it is often a gratifying experience.
“They want to talk to you, they want to know about the city, they want to ask you questions,” Khalid said. “I know about these things, I can talk to them.”
Khalid used to drive for Uber but switched to yellow cab after multiple bad experiences. Once, he says, four men hopped into his car using Uber pool when they had booked only two seats. When Khalid refused to take them, a passenger threw food and water at him.
“Uber paid me $70 to clean my car, but it was just disrespectful. In a taxi, I feel better. In Uber, you can’t argue with anyone. If you complain, they could block you from using the app,” he said.
“Without them, half the city doesn’t move”
Brandi Carlo Clark, a taxi dispatcher at LaGuardia, has spent countless hours talking with drivers while they wait. Clark said there are a lot of a misconceptions about the drivers.
“People overlook them, and they think that cab drivers are some lower form of life, like a sort of servant, but that is not the case. These guys are dads, husbands, brothers, sons. And they’re just trying to make ends meet,” Clark said. “Without them, half the city doesn’t move.”
But when Uber entered airports, she said, it became harder for cab drivers to take care of their families here and back home.
Clark, whose brother and father worked as taxi drivers, said she feels Ubers should be more heavily regulated at airports. Taxi drivers are often in debt after paying large sums for their medallions, and the city has so many ride-shares that many passengers prefer to open the app instead of hailing a cab, she said.
“It should be evened out so that we can reach some kind of balance,” Clark said.
Uber drivers’ endless wait times
But Uber drivers don’t have a big advantage at LaGuardia.
Artur Esayans has a morning routine: every day he drives to a nearby lot, parks his car, and waits. He might venture out to stretch his legs or chat with a friend. He is hoping to pick up a passenger from LaGuardia.
Esayans said he used to make more than $300 in five hours. Now, because of decreased Uber rates and more competition, Esayans said he has to work until midnight — around 16 hours — make the same amount of money.
The city recently imposed regulations to cap the number of empty ride-share cars in the city, so Uber created a new system: If a car remains empty for too long, the driver is logged out. To log back in, they have to leave the city and come back in again. On other ride-sharing services Esayans uses, drivers are locked out of the app completely when there are too many on the road.
“I start at LaGuardia. And once I drive into the city… if I get no job, then I come back here,” Esayans said. “Because for sure I’m going to get a job from here, so what’s the point of driving empty there?”
At the airport, Esayans can spend over an hour just to get onto a waiting list on the Uber app to pick up an airport passenger. Once he is in the queue, he has to wait — sometimes just a short while, other times more than three hours.
Today, Esayans waits his turn, talking to a friend at the top of the garage stairwell, on a folding chair he brought from home. The drivers find different ways to pass the time. Some take naps in their cars. Others kill time on their phone. At one corner of the parking lot, a group of men play cards. At the other end, another group is laughing, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and eating.
The wait can be stressful. Construction at LaGuardia pushed the Uber drivers from a larger garage to this one, and during busy times, it can get congested.
“This lot is a big mistake. Too tight, always traffic here. There should be a bigger, empty field,” Esayans said.
And, Esayans said, there are other things to worry about. Sometimes the app freezes and kicks him out of the waiting line. Or Uber encourages Esayans — who drives a Toyota Camry — to join Uber Pool even when he doesn’t want to. Some drivers feel that Uber Pool makes them feel like they’re operating a bus service, when they signed up to be drivers. Amidst all his worries, Esayans just wants to be heard and valued.
“There is no support for us. I call [Uber] so many times to say, ‘We are a family. If not for drivers like me and him, you are not going to make money,’ ” Esayans said. “ ‘You have to listen to our voice. It’s a problem. Fix it.’ ”