They were ubiquitous on the streets of New York, as iconic to the Big Apple as the Empire State Building or Yankees baseball caps. But after a year of pandemic, yellow taxis are increasingly scarce and their future seems uncertain.
On a frigid February morning, in a parking lot near La Guardia airport, about 50 yellow taxis queue up in search of a customer.
Before the pandemic, “there were hundreds of yellow taxis in this parking lot, we lined up outside and waited 20 minutes. Now we are 50, and we wait two hours, « says Joey Olivo, a veteran of the New York streets with 30 years of taxi under his belt.
With the widespread teleworking of those who flocked to business neighborhoods every day, the closing of schools and the paralysis of tourism, the amount of trips has collapsed.
“It’s tough: my income dropped 80%; I was earning maybe $ 1,000 a week, now I’m at $ 200-300, ”says Olivo.
Without his nurse wife, who continues to « earn a good living, » « I would have put a noose around my neck, » says this sixty-year-old from Brooklyn, jovial despite everything behind his mask.
« Freefall »
Most of New York’s taxi drivers, especially first-generation immigrants, do not have their luck or good humor in the face of the evaporation of their source of work.
The arrival of competition from Uber, Lyft and other apps had already drastically depleted their earnings, which could exceed $ 7,000 a month if they worked long hours, seven days a week.
But with the pandemic, « it’s free fall, » sums up Richard Chow, a 62-year-old Burmese.
Chow is not one of the most desperate because he bought his taxi license – called a « medallion » in New York – in 2006, for $ 410,000.
In the following years, the price of the medallions soared, inflated by a nebula of bankers, investors and lawyers. In 2009, his younger brother, Kenny Chow, paid $ 750,000 for his. In 2014, the medallions reached a million dollars.
The success of Uber and its rivals blew this bubble. And it condemned thousands of drivers who had bought medallions at the price of gold to bankruptcy or eternal debt.
Kenny Chow committed suicide in 2018, as did at least seven other drivers that year, highlighting his dramatic situation.
It was in this context that the pandemic and its « devastating effects » arrived, explains Bhairavi Desai, director of the Taxi Workers Alliance, a New York drivers union.
“Before the pandemic, trips were down 50%. Since the pandemic, we are close to 90%, « he says.
« The most deserted neighborhoods of the city are the Manhattan neighborhoods that drivers need the most for their income, and the airports, » he says.
Yellow taxis have become rare. Although there are still 13,000 medallions attributed, only 5,000 taxis are currently in circulation, according to the union.
Another 7,000 do not leave their garage, as getting them out is no longer profitable, explains William Pierre, a Haitian taxi driver.
Pierre continues to work, although his daily income barely oscillates between 100 and 150 dollars, and of that he must give half to the company from which he rents the taxi.
« I don’t want to stay home, I want to be outside and feed my family, » he says.
Is it possible that yellow taxis will disappear one day?
Olivo and Pierre think that business will improve in the end, although they agree that it will never be the same again.
Bhairavi Desai fears that taxis « will gradually disappear » if the mayor’s office does not agree to forgive the debts of the drivers. His union multiplied protests and dozens of taxis briefly blocked the Brooklyn Bridge on Wednesday.
« All over the world (…) you know you are in New York when you see a yellow taxi, » he says. « It is a cultural icon (…), a 24/24 service that is an integral part of the economic, social and cultural fabric of this magnificent city. »
New York’s Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio promises to help taxis if the city’s coffers, emptied by the pandemic, are fed by the federal government.
« We are looking for ways to help drivers, but we need … an aid plan, » he said Wednesday. If the plan is implemented « it will open the door to a solution. »
They cut the Brooklyn Bridge to call for help
On February 10, the . agency reported that dozens of taxi drivers cut off traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge in a protest action to demand financial aid from US legislators, since the sector has been strongly affected by the pandemic.
“The taxi industry, which has already suffered from the impact of competition from rental vehicles with driver (VTC), has registered an 80% decrease in its clientele since last March, when New York City was paralyzed almost entirely to try to reduce the spread of the virus, « he reported.
In their protest, several stopped taxis occupied the three lanes of the bridge heading towards Brooklyn around noon, causing a major traffic jam.
Before the eyes of the rest of the drivers, who got out of the vehicles to find out the cause of the sudden stop, the taxi drivers displayed a red sign with the letters SOS, and others that read “Give your people food. Let us live.
Organized by the New York Taxi Workers Union, which represents some 21,000 professionals, the demonstration demanded that the US Congress be forgiven for their accumulated license debt.
« We have blocked the Brooklyn Bridge because only direct actions are going to get what we need: that they forgive us the license debt now, » the organization explained on the social network Twitter.
The value of a « medallion » – the term used in the city for official taxi permits – has fallen from its peak of $ 1 million in 2014 to $ 120,000 today, which has led to Between 3,000 and 5,000 taxi drivers who borrowed to buy the licenses face large debts.
After closing the Brooklyn Bridge, taxi drivers protested in front of the offices of New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who later assured that he would support the initiative to forgive the debt of New York taxi drivers.
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