What Drives a Driver

Gregg Katz, a taxi driver in Olathe, Kansas, talks about how he’s resisted the pull of ride-share apps like Uber and Lyft and why he think taxis are safer.

Gregg Katz  (Rebecca Clarke)

After a series of high-profile reports of drivers attacking passengers in ridesharing services, such as Uber last year, The Atlantic published an article called, “Are Taxis Safer Than Uber?” After interviewing police departments in five U.S. cities—Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C—about assaults on passengers of taxis or Ubers, the authors, Adrienne LaFrance and Rose Eveleth, found that many police departments don’t keep comprehensive data about these kinds of assaults—and if ridesharing companies keep their own such records, they’re not publicly available. They concluded that the notion that ridesharing services are less safe than taxis is largely anecdotal.

That narrative, though, still has an impact on those working in the taxi and livery-car industry. Gregg Katz has been a taxi driver in Olathe, Kansas, for three years. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Katz about his passengers, his thoughts on Uber and Lyft, and people’s misconceptions about taxi drivers. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Adrienne Green: How did you you get started as  a taxi driver?

Gregg Katz: It was actually because of another driver. He started telling me all the benefits of being an independent contractor, such as being able to make your own hours and days, and I decided to look into it. At the time, I had both my kids with me, and being able to set my own schedule made it really appealing. That was a little over three and a half years ago. Of course, both my kids are gone now, but that flexibility is still a definite benefit to this job.

Green: What were you doing before you became a taxi driver?

Katz: I was in the Marines, I managed a nightclub, which is where I met my wife at the time, and two kids came from that. I inherited a family member's flower shop in 1999.

With all my jobs, what I took from them is what I put into the cab business: primarily the marketing part. One of the primary advantages to working for a cab company like mine is that if I ever have a problem with my vehicle, they get it taken care of. There's no out-of-pocket expense to me on that. Uber and Lyft drivers, they're responsible for their own vehicle, so a flat tire could ruin a person's day or a blown transmission could kill their career as a driver.

Green: Since you set your own schedule, what is an average day like?

Katz: I do something a little bit different from other taxi drivers. My passengers are all elderly or mentally-challenged. If somebody has a doctor's appointment, I pick them up and then if they have another appointment scheduled down the road, they'll tell me that so I can help keep track of them.

On average, my first passenger is between 8:00 and 8:30 a.m., and I usually pick up my last passenger at 2:30 p.m. It's always the same passengers everyday, with the exception of those with last-minute doctor's appointments. While other drivers are dependent upon the computer to dispatch them out to pick people up, I'm actually the complete opposite. All of my passengers are what I refer to as personals; these are people who call me up directly, book me in advance, sometimes months in advance. I've actually got some of these rides scheduled in January 2017.

Green: When many people think of taxi drivers, they imagine one in New York City driving around all hours of the day and night, with the goal of picking up as many people as possible. Why do you think your model works for your community?

Katz: When every driver starts, including myself, the very first year you pay for the cab lease daily, regardless of whether you drive or not. Obviously, this is the type of job that the more time you put into it, the more financially beneficial it could be for you. If you want to put in four hours a day, you're probably not going to do as well as somebody that puts in 12 hours. Everybody has to start off building up their clientele base, so it's not unusual when you first start to work days, nights, and do the bar scene.

After about a year, I was able to really get into the marketing aspect of it and develop this client base. Actually, 100 percent of my customers use coupons. This is a City of Olathe voucher that they pay $3.50 for, but it pays me $12.50. When I take someone to a doctor and then back home, I get a voucher, so that's $25 roundtrip. Since I'm really centralized in a three-mile radius from my own house, and that's where all my passengers are, I'm not driving nearly as much as the majority of the drivers that will go up to the airport or cross from Kansas over to Missouri.

Katz: With Uber and Lyft coming into the equation, I can see how it impacts drivers in the larger cities that have a younger customer base, people that will use smartphone apps. It hasn’t impacted me because my passengers are elderly and special needs. These aren't the type of people that would use smart phones. Some, in fact, don't even have a phone. What will make the difference between a driver succeeding or not is really how they market themselves. A driver can sit somewhere and wait all day for someone, or actually go out looking for the business.

I'll give an example: About 50 miles from my house is the Johnson County Detention facility, when people get out of there, often times they’re white-collar criminals. These people come out with no transportation, so I made cards that I gave to the sheriff's office so when people are released and they need a ride, I'm the person that they call.

Green: Do you think that Uber and Lyft can be complementary to the services taxis provide, or that they're actually eroding the overall taxi business?

Katz: I think it's a little bit of both. Obviously, Uber and Lyft have made it so that people can get a ride maybe sometimes quicker than taxis. That would be the negative impact on the industry. The flip side of that is, the only time I ever really hear about Uber is when it's a bad story. I think the benefit to a taxi service is that it's a marked vehicle. You have a certain expectation of security. We get background checks and random drug screenings done. Uber might boast that they have that in place, but it seems like every time you hear a negative Uber story, it's always that person that somehow managed to slip through the cracks. [An Uber spokesperson replied that “while no transportation means is 100 percent guaranteed, because accidents and incidents will happen, Uber leverages technology to improve safety in ways that weren't possible before.”]

With Uber, I'm not entirely sure how comfortable people are when you have a stranger pulling up in an unmarked vehicle and they say, "I'm your driver, get in." I'm sure there's thousands upon thousands of successful Uber stories out there, but those aren't the ones you hear about in the news. I think it benefits us, but at the same time, it could also hurt our industry if we don't find ways of being just as competitive as Uber.

Green: You don't feel like those same safety concerns exist for the taxi industry as well?

Katz: I don't believe so, because, again, I know that every driver that works for this particular company is required to turn in a driver report. They do a background check. We have to go through different city offices to get our permits, and they do background checks as well, and also random drug testing. I think those are safeguards that Uber might boast that they have in place, but it seems like it's always that person that somehow managed to slip through the cracks.

Green: What is the most challenging part of your job?

Katz: Personally, it is trying to accommodate the volume of people that do call. One day, for example, I had three people scheduled for pickups going to doctor's offices, but of course I had no idea when they would be done with their doctor and neither did they. Now, thankfully these people are almost like family to me. They understand that I have other commitments with other passengers, and are always willing to wait for me even when I offer them another driver. I've lived out here for nine years. I also have my Marine Corp sticker on the back of my window, and that helps because a lot of law enforcement are former military, so I get a couple of waves from them. I've got the police on my side also, so that makes it pretty easy.

Green: What is the most rewarding part?

Katz: Knowing that my passengers keep wanting me to be their driver. If someone were to call me right now and say, "Katz, I've got a doctor's appointment on Friday at 10:00 a.m. Are you available?" I might say, "Well, I'm sorry, Cathy, I'm booked. Would you like me to get another driver?" They’ll say, "No, no, Katz. Let me see if I can reschedule the appointment. When's a good time for you?" These people have become family to me, and at the same time, they don't treat me like I'm just a driver. We work pretty well with each other.

One other thing is that because some of my passengers are special needs, they're often by themselves. Last Thanksgiving, I discovered a handful of my passengers had no plans whatsoever. I got a little emotional sometimes, because I'm like that sucks. I went to Walmart, bought all the makings for a Thanksgiving dinner and then drove around and delivered food to them.

Green: What motivates you as a taxi driver?

Katz: I think it's a combination of two things. It works with my lifestyle, so the motivation is if I keep doing this, which I absolutely intend to, it brings in an income that pays all my bills and allows me to have this type of lifestyle to where it’s my choice to be done for the day at 2:30 in the afternoon.

I also really enjoy my passengers. I know what ails them, what medications they take, I can tell when they're not doing well, or when they're having a really good day. Sometimes driving can wear you out, but then I have these people around me who are very positive. I feed off of their energy. I know taxi drivers have got a reputation based upon movies and TV shows, but taxi drivers can be clean-cut, well maintained, dressed well. It's not everything that you see on TV. I think there’s a lot of good people out there.

Green: How would you say your work is tied to your identity?

Katz: I like helping these people, and I know that you have to have a certain degree of patience with some of them, but I enjoy being there for them. It allows me to care for people since I am an empty nester. My kids are gone, I live by myself, so I guess it allows me to care for people other than my four cats.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with an auto mechanic, a waste collector, and a pizza-delivery driver.