Kuber Sancho-Persad holds his late father's taxi medallion number at a protest. Many New York City taxi drivers and their families owe more money for their medallions than they are worth now. Oct. 18, 2021. [Credit: Delger Erdenesanaa]
This past September, a group of New York City taxi drivers parked their yellow cabs on the street and themselves on the sidewalk outside City Hall. For nearly two months, a rotating crew occupied the block 24/7 in a protest for debt relief.
Thousands of local cabbies — many of them immigrants from Asia who are approaching or past retirement age — have been crushed by debt in recent years. At least nine drivers have died by suicide as a result, according to the protestors. This financial distress was not caused entirely by competition from Uber and Lyft. The ride-sharing services, which entered the New York market in 2011 and 2014 respectively, only added fuel to an already smoldering fire.
To own and operate a taxi, drivers must purchase one of a limited number of city-issued medallions. For decades these medallions were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Although drivers had to take out loans to afford them, most thought the investment was worth it, the protestors said. Cabbies who wanted to retire could sell or lease their medallions and live off the proceeds.
But in the early 2000s, the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission allowed private lenders to inflate the price of taxi medallions, which brought in revenue for the city government in addition to making money for banks and credit unions. Medallions reached a high of $1 million in 2014 before the bubble burst and prices crashed. Thousands of drivers were left with debt that far outweighed the new value of their medallions. In late 2021, the situation reached a breaking point.
The protestors at City Hall came to the United States from Bangladesh, China, Côte d’Ivoire, Haiti, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Romania, Taiwan and Tibet. Many now live in the immigrant neighborhoods of Queens, and are members of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a union for professional drivers. Spouses, siblings and adult children of drivers who have passed away also joined the protest.
In October, after a month of silence from the city administration, drivers and supporters escalated their tactics by going on hunger strike. Local politicians, including state assembly members Zohran Mamdani and Yuh-Line Niou, and city council candidates Shahana Hanif, Jaslin Kaur and Shekar Krishnan, joined the strike. U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, whose father-in-law drove a taxi, also stepped in to help negotiate with former Mayor Bill de Blasio and his administration.
Then, in November, the cabbies finally won a reprieve. Marblegate Asset Management, the largest holder of taxi medallion loans, agreed to reduce loans to a maximum of $200,000, with monthly payments capped at $1,122. The city will provide $30,000 toward each loan, and guarantee the rest in case any drivers default. These are still huge amounts of money for a taxi driver to pay, but amid the industry’s years-long crisis, the deal at last offers hope.