The taxi industry has been brutally crunched on two sides—from skyrocketing operating costs, on the one hand, and a sharp decline in business, on the other. When the bubble burst in late 2014, the value of medallions crashed, leaving drivers with no savings and deep in debt. A rash of suicides among them has followed. At the same time, those already struggling to repay loans found their income drastically reduced by competition from Uber and other ridesharing companies. Erick Castro is left shaking his head, wondering why one of the city’s most faithful and enduring modes of transportation has been the one to go.
It is easy to think of New York as more of a concept, an easily traversable, cosmopolitan hub, than a place, a part of the natural world. Covid-19 has clarified that our health and lifespan is tied to a zip code. Climate change will make the consequences of the environmental history of the land, of both overdevelopment and neglect of the coasts, of environmental racism and displacement, and of our economic and cultural reliance on our coasts and waterways terribly apparent as the city’s water returns like a recovered memory.
Among the many new phrases that have suddenly become common currency—“six feet,” “social distancing,” “flatten the curve”—“essential worker” is perhaps the most significant. The term acknowledges the fact that labor that might previously have been dismissed as low-skill is, in fact, crucial to society’s functioning, New York City is fueled by grocery store clerks and the families who run bodegas, by farmworkers and truck drivers and couriers. This has always been true, but it is particularly evident now.
Food delivery in New York City is nothing new: it’s been possible to have pizza or Chinese takeout brought to your door since the 1950s. Yet in the newer online delivery industry, startups, flush with venture capital, have both altered and entrenched this historically exploitative low-wage work. The higher profile and PR consciousness of the new app firms curb some of the job’s worst abuses and offer the potential for better wages, but they also formalize its precariousness: like most gig workers, couriers are classified as independent contractors rather than employees. Online delivery work offers a particularly clear example of the contractor model’s pitfalls when it is applied to a physical and hazardous job.