New York City Manhattan empty street at Midtown at sunny day
For thousands New York City taxi drivers, the coronavirus pandemic has been devastating. Ridership has been down between 80-90% since March 2020, meaning maybe three passengers a shift on typical nights for many drivers. The vast majority of Manhattan office workers haven’t returned to the workplace, public school students have been in and out of classrooms, and tourism has plummeted.
Many cabbies stopped working when the pandemic shut down the city and haven’t returned to work, fearing that catching COVID-19 outweighs the risk of the disease or, potentially transmitting it to loved ones.
“Drivers have been among the earliest people to be exposed to Covid,” says Bhairavi Desai, Executive Director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA). “We’ve lost so many drivers.”
For many who stopped driving, federal unemployment checks became their only source of income. When those ran out over the summer, some drivers had no option but to return to driving – particularly younger, healthier ones, who see few options.
For Desai and other members of the NYTWA, tragedy in the industry is all too familiar. In an industry largely made up of immigrant workers, where language can be a barrier, going through medallion leasing documents can be a challenge. A report in June 2020 found that immigrants in New York bared the brunt of the pandemic, with some organizations claiming that 75% of their members were going hungry – turning to colleagues and the union mainly for emotional support.
In 2013, yellow cabs made nearly half a million trips a day. In 2020, that number dropped to 50-60 thousand. The yellow cab industry was already hemorrhaging trips pre-pandemic. FHVs flooded the streets as investment-backed platforms like Uber and Lyft undercut fares, able to absorb the loss. As riders flocked to these cheaper “taxis,” yellow cabdrivers were left in the dust.
Attempts to catch up have been largely unsuccessful. A number of yellow cab ride-hailing apps have emerged in recent years but have done little to recapture riders.
In response, the NYTWA has organized numerous demonstrations across New York in the hopes that legislation supporting the yellow cab industry will be passed. In September, hundreds of yellow cabdrivers halted traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, asking for debt forgiveness. Protests culminated in a motorcade that traveled from New York to Washington, DC, picking up yellow cabdrivers from Maryland and Philadelphia. They parked themselves outside Capitol Hill, demanding that Congress pass the stimulus bill.
The NYTWA has put forward a proposal to New York City asking it to backstop loans to be restructured to a maximum of $125,000 per medallion. Drivers would still be responsible for their loan payments and in the event of loan delinquency, the medallion would be repossessed and auctioned off. The plan will cost $75 million over the course of 20 years in a city that has an annual budget of $92 billion.
New York City’s Comptroller Scott Stringer and New York Attorney General Letitia James have both voiced their support for the NYTWA’s proposal, along with high-profile politicians such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Desai says that pre-pandemic, yellow cabdrivers were pretty close to victory. As COVID-19 swept the city and nation, attention shifted away from the plight of taxi drivers. However, Desai and other drivers are optimistic they will finally get the legislative support they need.
“Through the quarantine, we’ve built a real sense of community,” Desai insists, noting that union membership actually grew in 2020. Despite the uphill battle drivers have faced, she feels there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel.
One can only hope.