USA TODAY —
Ivan Ventura has spent the last few weeks acting more like a coupon clipper than a guy who drives a car for a living.
Shaving a few pennies off a gallon of gas has become a daily obsession.
Gas station promotions. Five cents off for using a BP gas card. Regular instead of premium. Driving to New Jersey to save 4 cents on a gallon.
He’s tried them all as gas prices soared.
“It sounds crazy, but you’ve got to penny-pinch,” Ventura said this week. “It all adds up to the bottom dollar.”
Ventura is a New York City Black Car driver. He spends eight to 10 hours a day picking up and dropping off Uber and Lyft passengers between Battery Park and 96th Street. It’s a business with thin margins, where an uptick in gas prices or reduced commissions from a fare takes a bite out of what drivers take home.
Ventura works full-time and his car is licensed by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission. His livelihood depends on being on the road.
But part-timers are feeling the squeeze, too.
Rising gas prices have them in a daily balancing act, trying to figure out whether it’s worth getting behind the wheel.
Part-timers interviewed in recent days say they have taken to driving only during the busiest hours of the week, like Saturday night. Or they stay close to area airports where they can depend on a steady stream of customers.
Several declined to give their names because they feared their ride-share services would kick them off their list of active drivers. They dread deactivation.
“That part-time driver is not going to be out between 10 and 4,” Ventura said. “Eventually, you might see a shortage of drivers.”
Could prices force drivers out of the market?
New York’s gas prices reached an average of $4.46 per gallon on Thursday, up from $2.86 a year ago, according to AAA.
White Plains’ prices were some of the highest in the state on Thursday, with an average per-gallon price of $4.55. Prices in Dutchess and Putnam counties also hit an average of $4.55 per gallon Thursday, while upstate cities like Rochester and Binghamton saw $4.41 and $4.43 per gallon, respectively.
Steadily rising oil prices, coupled with Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, have led to the highest gas prices in more than a decade.
Some New York lawmakers are pushing for a temporary suspension of the state gas tax to offer some relief to drivers. Gov. Kathy Hochul said she’s considering that idea this week, but there’s no guarantee it would move the needle on prices.
“This is out of the control of the state – it’s about point of supply,” Hochul said in Rochester Monday. “I want to make sure if we do something, that it’s actually going to have an impact. If we are going to reduce state revenues … much of this money is dedicated for road repairs and improvements. That’s the calculation we have to make.”
Rep. Joe Morelle, who represents the Rochester area, helped propose legislation in Congress in February to suspend the 18-cents-a-gallon federal gas tax until 2023.
The uncertainty of the situation caused New York ride-share drivers to wonder whether sky-high gas prices could push them out of the rideshare business.
“(The prices) are significantly higher than what I paid a month ago – I think it’s just shy of $4.50 now,” said Barron Lux, 65, an Uber driver in Rochester.
Lux is retired and drives an Uber because he enjoys the work. “I do it because I want to,” he said.
He generally stays in and around the upstate city, taking passengers to and from their destinations during the daylight hours, Monday to Friday. Sometimes he’ll ferry customers to Syracuse, Buffalo or Oswego – each more than an hour’s drive from Rochester.
He started driving about a year ago, and was keenly aware of the steady creep of gas prices throughout 2021 and their steep increase in the last few weeks.
Does it bother him? Not yet, he said.
While Lux isn’t bringing in the same amount of money he used to from his driving, that hasn’t kept him from getting out on the road. But if gas prices keep rising, he might reconsider, he said.
“As things get to that $5 mark … I think psychologically, that $5 mark will have a big impact on many people,” he said. “That is when I’m going to start looking at how many days I drive, or whether I drive at all and do something else.”
Ventura stays in touch with other drivers through grassroots driver groups that have come together in recent years to advocate for better wages, health care, unfair deactivations and the right to unionize. They are mostly people of color from a broad range of nations and ethnic groups.
Ventura heads the Black Car Mafia, part of the Justice for App Workers Movement.
He figures he spends 10% to 15% of what he takes home every day on gas.
On Wednesday for instance, he spent $96.51 filling up his 2022 Chevy Suburban with 22.6 gallons of regular at $4.26 per gallon in New Jersey. His car averages around 16 miles per gallon and he can get through two days on a full tank.
But he can’t wander too far out of the way.
“You’ve got to use the restroom around where you’re going to get your next ride,” Ventura said. “You can’t just drive three miles out of the way to try to get lunch.”
Raul Rivera had to give up renting a Black Car last week when gas prices got too high.
Rivera was renting from a licensed Taxi and Limousine Commission fleet owner for between $350 to $500 per week.
“I was driving a Toyota Hybrid, which did help in gas, but I was going to the pump more often than usual,” Rivera said.
He’s hoping to get back on the road soon.
He heads NYC Drivers United, another grassroots driver group.
He’s most concerned with the fate of drivers who may be deactivated. Several have struggled with mental health issues after losing their jobs.
“We want to be recognized by the city that we are essential workers,” Rivera said.
Ventura shares Rivera’s frustration with ride-share services, saying the companies haven’t done enough to offset the rising gas prices they’re facing.
This week, the group coworker.org circulated an online petition, urging the companies to take a smaller commission from fares.
Uber and Lyft are offering options like fuel cashback programs that can save drivers money when they fill up.
“We care deeply about the driver experience and we’ve taken concrete steps to help given rising gas prices,” Lyft said in a statement.
Uber has a driver loyalty program which lets drivers save money on gas by completing trips, keeping cancellation rates low and their ratings high, according to a statement sent to USA Today.
“Our platform only works if it works for drivers, so we’ll continue to monitor gas prices and listen to drivers over the coming weeks,” Uber said in the statement.
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