Living in the Shadow of Recession
By: Viji Sundaram
New America Media
It’s been less than a year since Pakistan native Javed Khan began driving a taxi, but his enthusiasm for the job is already running out of gas.
“It’s not just me. Every cabbie is hurting because of the rising price of gas,” Khan, 48, said as he pulled his yellow-and-green Crown Victoria sedan into a neighborhood ARCO station. “I thought this would be a good job for me, but I’m not so sure.”
With the price of regular gasoline hitting a record $4 in the San Francisco Bay Area – possibly the highest in the nation – many cabbies say they are making half of what they made as recently as six months ago – about $200 a day. Their Crown Victoria sedans with their gas-guzzling eight-cylinder engines get no more than eight to 10 miles to a gallon. This means frequent trips to the gas station, where they watch in pain as the digit counters relentlessly spin.
For non-independent cab drivers like Khan, who works for Yellow Cab Express, there is the additional monthly $350 or so in leasing costs.
“At the end of the day, I have very little to show for all of the hard work,” he said sadly. “I came here for the future of my kids. I want them to have a good education.”
Where previously they used to cruise the neighborhood for fares, these days most cabbies position themselves in the taxi stands or on the side of the road, hoping for a call from their dispatcher, or a customer to come by.
“I’ve been here for two hours and no customer is coming,” moaned 45-year-old Major Singh as he stood beside his taxi at the El Cerrito Plaza BART station, shooting the breeze with his fellow cabbies. Business, they say, as with one voice, is “bahut kharaab,” the term for very bad.
Like in New York City, the majority of cab drivers in the San Francisco Bay Area are immigrants from South Asia, particularly from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. At taxi stands in the East Bay, all kinds of accents and languages from the homeland can be heard. These days, the conversation frequently drifts to the economic meltdown.
Singh says it wasn’t like this 20 years ago when, as a new immigrant, he began driving a cab so that he and his family could have a better life. A fill-up then cost him around $10. A fill-up today is around $65.
As an independent driver, Singh says he has to pay a high insurance premium. And to add to his woes, he must abide by rates set by the city of Berkeley, which were last priced six years ago at $2.40 per mile, with the first flag rate drop of the same amount. According to City of Berkeley spokeswoman Mary Kay Clunies-Ross, “Those rates are equitable with those of cities around us. We're not making decisions in a vacuum.”
Asked why the city has not revised the rates since 2002, Clunies-Ross said: "It would have to be done by the City Council, but the issue hasn't come up before it lately."
Sixty-three-year-old Syed Bukhari, a Pakistani native, has been driving taxis since 1993, when there were no more than 70 taxis in Berkeley, compared to the 120 or so there are today. But even with the added competition, until a year ago, he was able to clear about $150 a day doing a 12-hour shift. Now, his profits have dropped because of the soaring cost of fuel. He would like to find himself some other job, he says, but is not sure how.
“A lot of cab drivers want to quit because of the crazy gas prices,” said Bill Lindauer, campaign coordinator with the New York Taxi Workers' Alliance, a coalition of taxi drivers. “But how will they quit unless they have some other job lined up right away?”
Squeezed by the rising fuel cost, Khan says he has stopped sending money back home to his family, even though he knows how heavily they depend on the remittances.
Now he’s wondering if he might be forced to turn in his keys and go back to being a security guard or a truck driver. He acknowledged that diesel prices are steep, too, but working a few extra hours in an 18-wheeler would be more profitable than being a cabbie.
“I may be able to (resume) sending money back home,” he said.