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, the 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 centers that have opened in different sections of the same neighborhood 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 center and incentives underscore how the deep-pocketed newcomer has become the behemoth in a crowded field.
These centers 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 centers are helpful for new drivers, Mr. 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 centers 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?”
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,” Mr. Friedman said, sitting with fellow cabbies at the taxi center. “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 156,413 from 145,674 in 2015. The drivers, who are considered independent contractors under federal labor guidelines, receive a single universal license that allows them to drive a taxi, livery or black car, making it easy to switch allegiances.
The epicenter for the driver wars has become Long Island City, Queens, where both Uber and the Taxi and Limousine Commission have offices in the Falchi building, a renovated loft-style warehouse with an artisanal food court. Lyft was the first to stake a claim on the fourth floor of the building in 2014 with a 12,000-square-foot center where drivers are welcomed with pretzels and soft drinks while Lyft employees spin crowd-pleasing tunes on a Sonos wireless sound system.
Gett, a ride-hailing app popular in Europe, moved in last year to the same floor, offering a technology training bar for drivers to get help using its app along with signing bonuses, free coffee and treats. Other ride-hailing apps have set up driver centers elsewhere in the city: Juno has a center near La Guardia Airport that serves about 150 drivers a day; Via has a center in Manhattan that, among other things, offers free parking for new drivers.
But leave it to Uber to open a sprawling center in the Falchi building, replacing a smaller center in the neighborhood. Uber says the new center has already drawn more than 10,000 drivers. It is one of four Uber centers in New York City alone, Uber’s largest United States market; the others are in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx.
“We believe we owe it to the drivers that partner with us to provide support face to face,” Josh Mohrer, a general manager for Uber, said.
On a recent afternoon, over 100 drivers crowded into Uber’s Queens center. Think Apple store, only nicer. A chime sounded and a concierge materialized to escort someone when it was his or her turn to meet with experts in blue T-shirts at long, communal tables in the back — the Uber version of the Genius bar.
Assistance is offered in multiple languages, including Spanish, Chinese and Arabic. Medical checkups and training classes are available, as well as “Uber 101” orientations for new drivers. (The center is open even to drivers who choose not to sign up with Uber.) Against one wall, Uber’s corporate partners promote specials on cellphone plans, car leases and insurance.
“It makes it simple and easy if you want to start driving for Uber,” said Sumeet Singh, 22, a college student who was visiting the center for the first time a couple of weeks ago.
The Uber center is a bright spot for a company that was recently accused of trying to profit during airport protests against President Trump’s first immigration order and has been criticized over sexual harassment claims.
The taxi center 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 center. Many taxi drivers have abandoned yellow cabs for ride-hailing apps in recent years, leaving cars idle in garages — 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.”
More than 4,000 drivers have used the center, Ms. Barrett said, and drivers are walked through each step of the licensing and renewal process, including filing their applications online. It offers free classes in defensive driving and how to assist passengers in wheelchairs. The classes, required by the licensing process, would typically cost $150 or more.
Three lawyers and two legal assistants help drivers contest parking tickets, summonses from the taxi commission and other violations — more than 3,000 of them so far — and accompany them to hearings.
Fritz Foreste, 66, was sent to the center by his garage after he received a parking ticket. With the center’s help, the ticket was dismissed after he explained that he had left his yellow cab at a taxi relief stand for 15 minutes to take a bathroom break. “They take care of us here,” he said.
Ronald Gathers, 71, a taxi driver for four decades, went to the center for help last year after he was unable to renew his license because he was sick. After he recovered, the center contacted the taxi commission, and got his license renewed in one day.
Even so, Mr. Gathers said he had heard so much about Uber that he could not resist checking out its new center recently. It was not for him, he said. He returned to his friends at the taxi center.
“I’d be a traitor,” he said. “I came back to yellow.”