Erik Forman doesn’t claim he was the first person to have the idea of starting a driver-owned alternative to Uber. “The idea for a co-op belongs to everyone and no one,” he says. Drivers in New York City say they have always yearned for an alternative to Uber, since it first came to the five boroughs in 2011. It was in the ether, Forman says, mentioned in conversations between rideshare drivers and labor organizers.
But together with Ken Lewis, a black car driver, and Alissa Orlando, former head of operations for Uber’s business in East Africa, Forman took that nebulous idea and turned it into something tangible: the Drivers Cooperative, which has now been operating its own rideshare app, called Co-op Ride, since May 30.
When Uber first launched, the flexibility in choosing when and where to work—versus a cab, with set hours and the high startup costs of getting a medallion, serving as a barrier to entry—attracted drivers in droves, spurring the growth of the gig economy. But cracks soon showed in that promise of freedom: Drivers were independent contractors and not employees, so were not eligible for benefits; they became burdened with vehicle maintenance, expenses like gas, and loans for higher-end cars that were supposed to lead to better rider ratings and pay. Additionally, Uber’s and Lyft’s cutthroat political actions across the country began to make clear that there were no solutions coming from the company. “There was a honeymoon period…and then the honeymoon ended,” Forman says, “and the reality is drivers were stuck with vehicle expenses and variable pay.”
Attempts to fix those cracks soon faltered. In. 2018, New York City set the nation’s first minimum pay rate for Uber and Lyft drivers; at the time, Uber warned that the move would lead to “higher than necessary fare increases.” Fares did go up, but it didn’t discourage rides, and drivers did earn more—but Forman says that because the law stipulates a “minimum,” the company doesn’t pay above that. Now, fares are skyrocketing again amid a driver shortage, but drivers aren’t getting a bigger share, in some cases making less per trip.