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As the pandemic spreads, yellow taxi drivers in New York are struggling to survive

Tang Jiaxuan said as he drove through Chinatown, “This is a ghost town.”

Wain Chin, who has been driving a yellow taxi since 1992, has been out of work since the New York pandemic. He said the possibility of acquiring a few customers does not guarantee the risk of catching Covid-19 and spreading the disease to his wife and three children.

Wen Jin

In addition to the low passenger capacity, many drivers also stop driving completely because they fear that they will be infected with the virus.

Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Union (NYTWA), said: “Drivers are one of the first people to come into contact with Covid.” “We have lost a lot of drivers.”

For many people who stopped driving, the federal unemployment check became the only source of income. When these summers are all used up, some drivers like Tang have no choice but to return to taxis. He believes that the 36-year-old has a lower risk of being infected by the virus, but he still has anxiety. Tang said that in December last year, a driver who used to go to a taxi stand in Chinatown died of Covid-19 complications.

The tragic history of an industry

For Desai and other members of NYTWA, the tragedy of this industry is all too familiar.

Traditionally, taxis in big cities require the use of commemorative medals-official permission, allowing yellow taxis to exclusively pick up hail. New badges are either sold by the city or, more commonly, purchased through auctions.

In 2018, in New York, 9 drivers for rent were killed by suicide due to the financial pressure of debts owed by their badges. Three of them are yellow taxi drivers.

Stephen Chow

Kenny Chow, a 56-year-old yellow taxi driver and driver, was among the victims. His elder brother Richard Chow was distressed by the loss of Kenny’s memory.

Zhou said: “I told him to oppose bankruptcy.” “I didn’t know he would make this decision. It was very sad.”

Immigrants help each other

The Chow brothers and Chin are close friends. They share a common Burmese tradition and explore the complexities of immigrant life together.

In an industry consisting mainly of migrant workers, language can be a barrier, so passing the medallion lease document can be a challenge. Chin often sits with new drivers to ensure they fully understand the signed documents and not fall into a debt trap.

Richard Chow, left, Wain Chin
A June 2020 report found that immigrants in New York bear the brunt of the pandemic, with some organizations claiming that 75% of their customers are hungry. Zhou agreed, saying he had no choice but to buy cheap, sometimes expired food. During the pandemic, he increasingly relied on the emotional support of colleagues and unions.

Since Kenny’s death, Chin and Richard have been talking to each other every day, and often visit Kol Schurz Park on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Kenny Live here.

They leaned on the railing overlooking the East River and spent a moment of silence. Richard prayed that the fate of other drivers was not like his brother’s.

Debt-driven industries

Richard bought his medal in 2006 for $410,000. Fifteen years later, he still owes $390,000. “Thousands of drivers feel the same…struggling.”

Tang received his father’s $530,000 medallion debt after his death. Today, although he can only pick up a few passengers per flight, he pays more than $2,800 to his asset management company every month today.

When ride-sharing platforms such as Uber and Lyft entered the market in the early 2010s, the value of taxi medals plummeted.

According to Desai, in 2013, trophies were once valued at more than one million U.S. dollars, and they are now priced between 75,000 and 100,000 U.S. dollars, putting drivers on average in debt of 450,000 U.S. dollars.

Taxi medal.

Desai said: “For thousands of car owners, the medal has always been a channel for them to enter a stable life of the middle class.” For many people, this dream will never come true.

In 2013, yellow taxis made close to one million trips per day. By 2020, this number will drop to 500,000-6 million. But the yellow taxi industry is already bleeding heavily before the pandemic.

Due to the proliferation of unregulated vehicle rentals, investment-supported platforms such as Uber and Lyft have reduced fares and can absorb losses. When drivers flocked to these cheaper and more convenient taxis, the yellow taxi drivers were covered in dust.

Attempts to catch up were largely unsuccessful. In the past few years, many yellow taxi-hailing apps have appeared, but they have failed to attract customers.

Drivers fight for legislation

In response, NYTWA organized many demonstrations in New York, hoping to pass legislation supporting the yellow taxi industry. In September, hundreds of yellow taxi drivers stopped traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, demanding debt relief. Tang, Chow and Chin have been active in NYTWA demonstrations.

The protest eventually reached a convoy from New York to Washington, D.C., with yellow taxi drivers from Maryland and Philadelphia. They parked themselves outside Capitol Hill and asked Congress to pass the stimulus bill.

Tang said: “Some of us play politics in our lives.”

NYTWA submitted a proposal to New York City, asking it to support the loan to be restructured, up to a maximum of $125,000 per medal. The driver is still responsible for his loan. If the loan defaults, the medal will be taken back and auctioned.

For a city with an annual budget of US$92 billion, the plan will cost US$75 million in 20 years.

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer and New York Attorney General Letitia James, Representative Alexander Ocasio Cortes and Senator Bernie Sanders and other prominent politicians are Expressed support for NYTWA’s proposal.

Desai said the yellow taxi drivers before the pandemic were close to victory. With Covid-19 sweeping across cities and entire countries, attention has shifted from the plight of taxi drivers to other places. However, Desai and other drivers are optimistic that they will eventually receive the required legislative support.

“Through isolation, we have established a real sense of community,” Desai insisted. She pointed out that the number of union members has actually increased in 2020.


For Tang, unity is vital to victory. Despite decades of separation, he still calls Chin and Chow brothers. He first became friends with them at Kenny Chow’s vigil in 2018. After that, the connection between them was strengthened.

Tang said: “I do believe that there will be light at the end of the tunnel. I do believe that as long as enough people get together, we can make changes.”

“We will continue to fight for this. We will continue to make noise.”

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