New York: They were omnipresent on the streets of New York day and night, as emblematic of the Big Apple as the Empire State Building or Yankees caps. But the pandemic has made yellow taxis scarce and facing an uncertain future.
Prior to coronavirus the parking lot near La Guardia airport would be full of cabs and waiting time 20 minutes but now there are only about 50 and wait time of two hours.
Widespread working from home, school closures and no tourists means rides have plummeted.
New York taxi drivers, most of whom are first-generation immigrants, were once able to make $7,000 a month or more if they worked long hours seven days a week.
Competition from Uber, Lyft and other vehicle-for-hire firms had already drastically dented their income, but with the pandemic it is in “free fall,” says Richard Chow, a 62-year-old taxi driver originally from Myanmar.
Chow is not feeling the press as much as most, because he bought his license, called a “medallion” in New York, for $410,000 in 2006.
In the years that followed, medallion prices soared, inflated by a nexus of bankers, investors and lawyers.
In 2009, his younger brother Kenny Chow paid $750,000 for his license. In 2014, the cost of medallion reached $1 million.
The arrival of thousands of new drivers working for Uber and others has caused the medallion bubble to burst and condemned thousands of cabbies who had bought medallions at a high cost on credit to fall into debt or bankruptcy.
Kenny Chow and at least seven other drivers, including of black cars and limousines, committed suicide in 2018, underscoring a dire situation that has been worsened by the pandemic.
“The pandemic has just been devastating,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the Taxi Workers Alliance.
“Before the pandemic, ridership had been down by 50 percent. Since the pandemic, it’s down closer to 90 percent,” she told AFP.
Out of some 13,000 licenses, only about 5,000 taxis are running regularly at the moment, according to the union.
Some 7,000 others aren’t even leaving their garages. Desai fears yellow cabs “will slowly phase out” if the city government does not erase drivers’ debts.
Her union is stepping up protests and dozens of drivers briefly blocked traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge on Wednesday.
New York’s Democratic mayor, Bill de Blasio, has promised to help the taxi drivers provided the city, economically ravaged by the pandemic, is bailed out by the federal government. “If we can get the kind of stimulus support we deserve. I think it opens the door to coming up with a solution to help taxi drivers and families who have suffered so much,” he said on Wednesday.