New York (USA): “With the pandemic, it’s a free fall”

Posted15 February 2021, 08:34

Yellow taxis, ubiquitous in the streets of New York day and night, have become rare. After a year of pandemic, their future seems very uncertain.

Yellow cab drivers block traffic during a demonstration calling for debt cancellation for taxis hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, in New York City on February 10, 2021.


One February morning in a parking lot near the New York airport of La Guardia: around fifty “yellow cabs” patiently stand in line, in bitter cold, before being able to load a customer at one of the terminals .

Before the pandemic, “there were hundreds of yellow taxis in this parking lot, we lined up outside and waited 20 minutes. Now we’re 50, and we’re waiting two hours, ”says New York street veteran Joey Olivo, with 30 years in the cab behind him.

Generalized teleworking in business districts, school closures, stationary tourism: the number of errands has fallen, for him as for all New York drivers. “It’s tough: my income has gone down 80%, I was earning maybe $ 1,000 a week, I’m on $ 200-300,” he says.

Without his nurse wife, who she continues to “earn a good living”, “I would have passed a rope around my neck,” said this sixty-year-old Brooklyn man, jovial in spite of everything, behind his mask.

90% decrease

Most New York taxi drivers, mostly first generation immigrants, have neither their luck nor their good humor in the face of the evaporation of their livelihood.

The arrival of competition from Uber, Lyft, and other VTC driver applications had already drastically damaged their income, which could previously exceed $ 7,000 a month provided they worked long hours, seven days a week.

But with the pandemic, “it’s free fall,” summarizes Richard Chow, 62, from Burma. He is not the most desperate because he bought his license – called a medallion in New York – in 2006, for 410,000 dollars.

In the years that followed, medallion prices soared, inflated by a nebula of bankers, investors and lawyers. In 2009, his younger brother, Kenny Chow, paid his $ 750,000. In 2014, medallions reached one million dollars.

The success of Uber et al. Has burst this “bubble”. And condemned thousands of drivers, who had bought medallions on credit at full price, bankruptcy or debt for life. Kenny Chow committed suicide in 2018, like at least seven other drivers that year, underscoring their often dire situation.

It was in this context that the pandemic and its “devastating effects” occurred, explains Bhairavi Desai, director of the Taxi Workers Alliance, a union of New York drivers. “Before the pandemic, races were down 50%. Since the pandemic, we are close to 90%, ”she said.

Like airports, “the most deserted parts of the city are the Manhattan neighborhoods on which drivers depend for their income,” she said.

Cultural icon

Hence the scarcity of yellow taxis: if there are still some 13,000 medallions awarded, only 5,000 of them are running regularly at the moment, according to the union. Some 7,000 others no longer leave their garage: taking them out is no longer profitable, explains William Pierre, a driver from Haiti.

He continues to drive, even if his daily earnings hardly exceed $ 100 to $ 150 – which he shares 50/50 with the company that leases the car to him. “I don’t want to stay at home, I want to be outside and feed my family,” he says.

So, the yellow taxis – which supplanted the checkered taxis in the 1960s – are they doomed to disappear? Joey Olivo like William Pierre thinks things will pick up eventually. Even if they agree that “it will never be the same again”.

Bhairavi Desai, she fears that they will “gradually disappear” if the town hall does not erase the debts of the drivers. His union is increasing the demonstrations, and dozens of them briefly blocked traffic on the famous Brooklyn Bridge on Wednesday.

“All over the world (…) you know you’re in New York when you see a yellow cab,” she says. “It is a cultural icon (…), a 24-hour service that is an integral part of the economic, social and cultural fabric of this magnificent city.”

New York Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio promises to help taxis – provided the city’s coffers, drained by the pandemic, are bailed out by the federal government. “We want to help the drivers but we need (…) an assistance plan,” he said on Wednesday. If it does, “it will open the door to a solution.”


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