Uber battles taxis to woo drivers

Uber battles taxis to woo drivers

Uber, in some places, has employed aggressive techniques to evade regulatory limits, and prompted demonstrations by taxi drivers and owners.

Uber battles taxis to woo drivers

The centre serving drivers of New York’s yellow taxis is 3,000 square feet. The centre serving the city’s Uber drivers is 30,000 sq ft.

The taxi centre invites cabdrivers to rest their feet in a cluttered office with utilitarian furnishings and fliers taped to the walls. They can use the bathroom, grab a cup of coffee and take advantage of free training classes and legal assistance. Opened in 2015, it is the first such centre in the history of yellow cabs in New York City, industry leaders say.

Just a mile away, the Uber centre deploys a dozen concierges in black T-shirts to sign in drivers with iPads in a gleaming, airy sanctuary tastefully outfitted with flat-screen monitors, sleek couches and a wall-size print of abstract renderings of New York landmarks.

There are bathrooms upstairs and downstairs, a self-serve coffee bar and plush carpeting so new it is spotless. There is also a raft of lucrative perks that are unmatched by the taxi centre: signing bonuses, paying for two weeks of a driver’s car lease and free medical checkups.

The Uber centre — officially called a Greenlight Hub — opened in December, part of the ride-hail app’s all-out war to recruit drivers and win riders. It is the largest and fanciest of more than 200 across the country, including in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia and Miami.

The upending of the traditional taxi business across the United States and around the world by Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing services has given consumers new and sometimes cheaper options and forced cities to re-examine their transportation policies. 

Uber, in some places, has employed aggressive techniques to evade regulatory limits, and prompted demonstrations by taxi drivers and owners in places like Paris, London and Brasília. And it has ignited an intense competition for drivers, nowhere more so than in New York.

But Uber has also had a contentious relationship with its drivers over working conditions. A series of fare cuts to attract more passengers has drawn protests from drivers who say it hurts their bottom line, and led to a recent confrontation between Travis Kalanick, chief executive of Uber, and a driver that was captured on video.
Uber drivers are considered independent contractors, and some have sued the company to try to get health insurance and other employee benefits.

Despite the conflicts, Uber is a relentless competitor, and the taxi and Uber centres that have opened in different sections of the same neighbourhood in Queens are a visible manifestation of how the rival industries continue to take on each other out of view of their customers.

Both have introduced amenities for drivers once unheard of in a no-frills industry, but Uber’s showstopping centre and incentives underscore how the deep-pocketed newcomer has become the behemoth in a crowded field.

These centres embody the growing divide on New York City’s streets between old and new, tradition and innovation, that have forced the taxi industry to embrace new ways to counter the growing reach of the ride-hailing apps. Just as riders can now stick out a hand for a yellow cab or tap an app for a black car, drivers have a choice, too.

Do they stay with a struggling taxi industry that has been a fixture of New York life for over a century? Or do they join the ranks of the ride-hail apps that are reshaping the city’s transportation landscape.

Shaon Chowdhury, 39, who manages a yellow taxi garage in Queens, said he was seeing more Uber drivers pick up shifts driving yellow cabs because Uber’s “rates are low” and they cannot make enough money. “My best friend drives for Uber and cries all the time,” he said.

That friend, Ben Chowdhury, 42, who is not related, said he made less money, and worked longer hours, than when he started driving for Uber two years ago. He typically earns $20 to $25 an hour, down from $30 to $35, because of the company’s fare cuts.

While the Uber centres are helpful for new drivers, Chowdhury said, “It doesn’t make up for not paying us more. We are busy but we’re just not making enough money.”
But for some, the centres have made it easier to drive for Uber. Hager Krahn, 28, a mother of two young children who earns up to $80 for four hours of driving at night to supplement her family’s income. “They helped with everything,” she said. “They paid for everything. Who doesn’t want something for free?”

Feeling wanted
Yellow-cab drivers are also feeling more wanted as the taxi industry tries to stave off defections and lure new workers. Donald Friedman, 63, who has been driving since 1972, said he had made money ferrying around passengers including the likes of Bette Davis and Norman Mailer. But until now, he said, he never felt that anyone had his back.

“In 45 years, there’s never been anything like this,” Friedman said, sitting with fellow cabbies at the taxi centre. “Nobody advocated for the driver. If you dropped dead on the road, they would charge you to tow the car back to the garage. That’s the kind of help drivers would get — nothing.”

Citywide, the number of drivers licensed by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission has climbed to 1,56,413 from 1,45,674 in 2015. The drivers, who are considered independent contractors under federal labour guidelines, receive a single universal licence that allows them to drive a taxi, livery or black car, making it easy to switch allegiances.

The Uber centre is a bright spot for a company that was recently accused of trying to profit during airport protests against President Donald Trump’s first immigration order and has been criticised over sexual harassment claims. The taxi centre is also battling to retain and attract new drivers, albeit in a more modest setting.

The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, which represents the owners of 5,500 yellow cabs, opened the driver resource centre. Many taxi drivers have abandoned yellow cabs for ride-hailing apps in recent years, leaving cars idle in garages.

It is a sharp turn from the days when those garages kept waiting lists because they had more potential drivers than cars. “We had to do something,” said Jean Barrett, the taxi group’s executive director. “This driver community is our business.”

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