Cash-strapped New York City cabbies take to streets amid industry crisis

Battling Covid-19 and Uber-style taxi apps, the city’s iconic yellow cabs face a bleak future

A yellow cab taxi drives in midtown during a winter storm on February 1, 2021 in New York City. A powerful winter storm is set to dump feet of snow along a stretch of the US east coast including New York City on February 1, 2021, after blanketing the nation's capital. The National Weather Service issued storm warnings from Virginia to Maine -- a swathe home to tens of millions of people -- and forecast snowfall of 18 to 24 inches (45-60 centimeters) in southern New York, northeastern New Jersey and parts of southwest Connecticut.
 / AFP / Angela Weiss
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Less than a decade ago, owning a desirable “medallion” licence to run one of New York’s iconic yellow cabs was a route to middle-class living for many immigrant newcomers to the skyscraper city.

The industry has been ravaged by Uber and other taxi apps as well as the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. On Wednesday, yellow cab owners protested across the city, complaining of bankruptcy and suicide deaths, and pleading for government cash bailouts.

Cash-strapped cabbies held placards demanding “debt forgiveness”. Many say they could lose their homes over unpaid loans taken out in the years when medallions — a numbered metal licence plate stamped into a yellow taxi cab’s bonnet — changed hands for more than a million dollars, but which nowadays sell for only a fraction of that.

One of the protesters was Felicia Singh, a teacher and daughter of Indian immigrants, whose medallion-owning father filed for bankruptcy because he could no longer afford his monthly loan payments.

Bankruptcy court officials this month hung a “For Sale” sign on the family home and they have less than three months to stump up $100,000 or the house will be sold, said Ms Singh, who is running for a local council seat.

“Our city has not protected our ageing immigrants, and this happened on all of our watch,” Ms Singh told a city council meeting on Wednesday.

“The medallion crisis is so real. My father has had no choice but to file for bankruptcy because of his medallion — the same medallion he was told he could sell. And there went our income.”

Instead of retiring, Ms Singh’s 66-year-old father drives his cab along deserted streets amid a pandemic and partial lockdowns, trying to make enough cash to halt the looming repossession.

“This is the intersectionality behind allowing predatory lenders to do this to seniors who now have to work for the rest of their lives in New York City to pay for something they should have been able to retire on,” she added.

New York City’s yellow cab drivers have faced crippling setbacks in recent years.

There was a time when owning a medallion offered a steady income and was a popular business for recent entrepreneurial arrivals to the melting pot city.

Medallions are issued by city officials and offer owners the exclusive right to pick up passengers on the street of the five boroughs — Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.

The limited number of plates made them so desirable that in 2013, they traded for up to $1.3 million.

Aspirational cab drivers took out large loans, often secured on homes, to pay for them.

But the yellow cab industry has been hit hard by the arrival of Uber, Lyft and other app-based car services that offer users cheaper and in many cases more convenient ways to move around the city.

Between 2013 and 2014, yellow cabs handled about one million rides per day. That number has dropped to only 50,000 per day, said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.

Nowadays, app-based cars outnumber their yellow rivals by about nine to one.

The coronavirus pandemic, which had its global epicentre in New York between March and May last year, hit yellow cabs further still, with fewer passengers riding from airports, taxi ranks and hotels.

The number of rides fell between 80 and 90 per cent, said Ms Desai.

Taxi drivers are also at high risk of contracting Covid-19, given that many have only makeshift plastic sheets to separate them from potentially infected passengers.

Before the pandemic, the industry was “slowly haemorrhaging rides”, said Ms Desai.

Now it is on the “brink of utter collapse” and “will gradually begin to disintegrate".

The value of medallions has troughed, meaning drivers who borrowed to purchase them at their 2013 peak nowadays do not earn enough from rides to cover monthly repayments.

The average medallion owner owes $450,000 on their once-desirable plates, according to the alliance.

Ms Desai describes “economic despair” pushing indebted cab owners to taking their own lives.

In 2018, the alliance reported nine yellow cab breadwinners dying of suicide. Three of them were medallion owners.

In September, the alliance urged city officials to restructure medallion loans down to a maximum of $125,000 over the coming two decades.

In December, a convoy of yellow cabs drove from New York to Washington to push politicians to help.

On Wednesday, they rallied outside Mayor Bill de Blasio's home and elsewhere in New York.

“We aren’t asking for the moon,” the group wrote on Twitter.

“We’re asking for action to stop driver deaths by suicide and to stop bankruptcies destroying immigrant families in NYC.”

The drivers have found some allies.

New York Attorney General Letitia James in November said cab owners were “economically devastated” and that cutting debts was a “responsible way to help these small businesses and the industry recover”.

“It's essential that we provide this relief immediately,” Ms James tweeted.

But for Ms Singh and many other New York cabbies and their family members, the likelihood of a citywide bailout is a long-shot.

“When is our mayor and our city council going to find the moral compass to do something about it?” said Ms Singh.

“We have 85 days to push the mayor to adopt the debt relief plan or my family and I will be unhoused.”