Ride-hail services like Uber and Lyft have saturated the market, and an exodus of drivers from cabs has made medallion values drop – leaving many owing money
The premise is familiar: MD Islam left Bangladesh and came to the United States in search of a better life. He arrived in New York, became a taxi driver, and set about following the well-trodden path of the industrious American immigrant.
The medallion system regulates the yellow taxis serving New York City: since 1937, each vehicle has needed a medallion in order to legally operate. Few taxi drivers own theirs; most lease them, paying around $100 for one 12-hour shift.
The limited number of medallions issued by the city made each one highly valuable; individual medallion sale prices went from $50,000 in the late 1970s to over $1m by 2014.
For many taxi drivers, owning a medallion meant success. Homes would be purchased. Children would be sent to universities.
Islam managed to put a down payment on his medallion in 2010, and for a few years, it seemed like a good investment. Then, in 2015, with the widespread popularity of Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing apps, his fortunes changed.
Yellow Cab driver MD Islam, 40, from Bangladesh, owes $830,000 on a mortgage for his medallion which is now worth much less.
Ride-hail cars saturated the market, and an exodus of drivers from yellow taxis made medallion values drop precipitously.
“I’ll have to spend my whole life paying this loan,” said Islam, now 40 and in debt to the tune of $830,000.
“And after that, I won’t get anything. The medallion has no value. No one wants to buy it now.”
In the New York City of the public imagination, taxicabs dot the urban landscape. Taxi driving is an old, almost mythic profession in this city; the first yellow cabs appeared in the 1920s.
Today, there are more than 13,000 yellow medallion taxis in New York, split among about 40,000 drivers – some own their own medallions and cars, but most do not; many drivers work for a fleet, like the characters from Taxi, and pay to rent each car on a daily or weekly basis.
Dragan Lekic, 56, from former Yugoslavia, is calm and philosophical about the changes to the business that have come from Uber.
“I always liked driving cars,” said Dragan Lekic, 56. He emigrated to New York from what was then Yugoslavia, shortly before the beginning of the Yugoslav wars.
“You start something, and then you get caught into it. But as you well know, America has been a dream for everybody. So I’m here.”
The job is not easy: the standard shift is 12 hours, and with the cost of leasing a car and filling the gas tank, a bad day means taking a loss. For every moment spent without a paying passenger, the driver loses money. Occasionally, passengers are abusive or violent; nationwide, taxi drivers are over 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job than anyone else.
But taxi driving provides the chance to make a living, however difficult or dangerous or meager – especially for working-class immigrants, who often have limited employment opportunities.
“I have problems with my English,” said Jinder Singh, 55. “I can only drive.”
Twenty years ago, Singh left the Punjab in northern India, where he had worked on a farm, and moved to New York. He followed his brother-in-law into the taxi business, and has been driving ever since.
Jinder Singh, 55, formerly a farmer from Punjab, followed his brother-in-law into the taxi business. He has driven a taxi for about 15 years.
“It’s stressful, very stressful, but you feel like a free man,” said Ignimora Atarouanourou, who also found his way to taxis through a family connection: his father, who has now been driving for almost 30 years.
Originally from Togo, 39-year-old Atarouanourou has driven a taxi for the last six years. He leases a car from a Long Island City garage that allows him to set his own schedule, and provides him with free car repairs – as well as a massage chair to sit in while he waits. In the next room, drivers have access to a coffee machine and a small prayer area, lined with rugs.
“For myself, personally, I’m satisfied with what I have,” said Atarouanourou. “But a lot of my friends, they’ve switched to Uber.”
Ignimora Atarouanourou, 39, from Togo, followed his father into the taxi business. He sits in a massage chair in the taxi garage during a break.
Uber officially arrived in New York in 2011; by 2015, Uber cars outnumbered taxis – and took away millions of rides. Taxi drivers, noticing the drop in passengers, began to leave the business behind: many transitioned towards driving for Uber, for other ride-hailing services like Lyft, Juno or Via – or for all of them at once. Now, fleets struggle to find enough drivers, and empty yellow taxis sit dormant in garages throughout the city.
“Somebody told me Uber was paying good, so I did it,” said Shahnoor Qurashi, 54, who had been driving taxis since the early 90s. Four years ago, he decided to try driving an Uber car.
“At that time, four years ago, they were paying good. But not any more,” said Qurashi, who cited Uber’s various price cuts, and the sizeable commission the company takes from each fare.
“They are exploiting the drivers,” he said. When a passenger lodged a complaint against him, Uber suspended his account – and Qurashi was unable to defend himself against the passenger’s claims.
“I didn’t have power or anything. It was customers’ rights, not workers’ rights.”
Now, Qurashi has returned to the yellow cab business, but ridership is down.
Edwin Montenegro, 46, was born and raised in the East Village of New York and is a Gulf Wwar veteran. He has driven a taxi for 22 years.
“It used to be pretty lucrative, for a long time,” said Edwin Montenegro, 46. He is a rarity among taxi drivers: a native New Yorker, he was born and raised in the East Village. After returning from the Gulf war, Montenegro began driving a taxi in 1996.
Eight years later, he took out a loan and bought a medallion.
“I was making excellent money. I was planning for the medallion to go to $2m, and then sell it, and then probably open up a bar.” He laughed. “That’s what I’d wanted to do.”
But then, the rise of ride-hailing apps thwarted his plans. He went back to school to study massage therapy, and is considering leaving the taxi business entirely.
“I wish we were more united, and able to fight. There’s no union for us,” he said.
Taxi drivers who want to organize can join the New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance (NYTWA), an organization that claims 18,000 members and is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
But taxi drivers are independent contractors, and are not protected under the National Labor Relations Act. The NYTWA can coordinate protests and strikes, but has no collective bargaining rights.
One driver, who currently works for a fleet, spoke anonymously: “I’m not mad that Uber changed my business,” he said. “I am very happy that the garage owners are losing business. I saw one owner driving a Ferrari. Where does he make the money? From us, the drivers. So bring Uber, I love Uber.”
He recalled abusive employers screaming at him, and corrupt dispatchers – some, he claimed, demanded tips from all drivers, lest they be assigned defective cars or fewer shifts.
“Do you know who let Uber succeed? Garage owners, because they aggravated the drivers. That’s why all the drivers ran, to work for these apps.”
A burned-out taxi in a garage in Long Island City, Queens.
Still, some drivers stay with their taxis – like Abdelhalim Elgndy, 62, who has been driving a taxi since 1992. He intends to retire only when his two children have graduated and started their careers: both his daughter and son are currently studying medicine.
“I like the system as a cab driver,” he said. “I’m used to it. I like to just pick up a person. Tell me where you’re going, I’ll know where I’m going. It’s easier for me.”
But many taxi drivers are not optimistic about their industry.
“There is no future for taxis,” said 48-year-old Sayed Moustafa, who has been driving a taxi for over a decade.
“My son is 17, and he uses Uber,” Moustafa explained. “My daughter is 15, and soon, she’s going to use Uber, like him. All these young people, when they grow older, they’re still going to use technology. They’ll be used to it. They won’t take taxis.”
Abdelhalim Elgndy, 62, originally from Egypt, was formerly a sous chef in a French restaurant and supports two children by driving a cab. He has driven a taxi for 25 years.
For now, Moustafa continues to drive: nine hours a day, six days a week. In the passenger seat, he keeps one shift’s worth of water and snacks. He does not take breaks.
As for MD Islam, he has a grim view of his own future – that of his two children, aged six and nine.
“When I came here, I had big hopes,” he said. “But now, I think, it was the wrong decision. Now we are planning to move back to Bangladesh. This is not a good life.”
Since you’re here …
… we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading the Guardian than ever but advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. And unlike many news organisations, we haven’t put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as open as we can. So you can see why we need to ask for your help. The Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we do it because we believe our perspective matters – because it might well be your perspective, too.
I appreciate there not being a paywall: it is more democratic for the media to be available for all and not a commodity to be purchased by a few. I’m happy to make a contribution so others with less means still have access to information.Thomasine F-R.
If everyone who reads our reporting, who likes it, helps fund it, our future would be much more secure.
by Cecilia Saixue Watt with photography by Ali Smith