The Lives Behind the Wheel of a Yellow Cab Industry in Decline
15 May 2019
NEW YORK — Instead of spending rush hour behind the wheel of his yellow cab one April morning, taxi driver Robert Chow slumped on a park bench behind a taxi stand in Lower Manhattan, tears streaming from his eyes.
It has been almost one year since his brother, also a taxi driver, committed suicide, but Robert Chow is still reeling from the loss.
His grief is compounded by his own struggles as a taxi driver of one of New York City’s iconic yellow cabs, whose once thriving business has been since decimated by the arrival of Uber, Lyft and other e-hailing car services that have rendered his taxi medallion virtually worthless. It was the loss in value and mounting debt that ultimately drove his younger brother Kenny — another medallion owner who followed in Chow’s footsteps — to financial ruin and suicide.
Chow cannot help but feel somewhat responsible for Kenny’s death, he said.
When he secured a $410,000 loan for his taxi medallion — the aluminum plate required to drive a yellow taxi — almost 16 years ago, Uber had yet to begin operating in the city and the medallion’s market value was climbing steadily. The sustainable flow of income from Chow’s investment was what prompted Kenny to follow suit. Five years later, Kenny had taken out a loan of his own to invest in a $700,000 medallion — just two years before the medallion peaked in 2013 at a market price of over $1 million. Chow recalled how he and Kenny, after hearing the news, had celebrated what they then thought was a small price to pay for lifelong stability.
Until the medallion, and the city’s cab industry dependent on it, began to plummet in value by as much as 80 per cent from its peak, dragging drivers’ livelihoods—and lives—along down with it.
Kenny Yu Mein Chow, who was 56 when he died, told loved ones that, amid mounting loans and the plummeting value of the medallion, he could not afford to pay for his daughter’s college education and the medical bills following his wife’s diagnosis with cancer.
“My brother, he was working so hard, seven days a week, over 12 hours a day,” Chow said, choking up. “In the end, he was sick and tired of working. He was sick and tired of not making money.”
Kenny’s death marked the fifth of seven yellow cab driver suicides since November 2017 — all immigrant men in their 50s, 60s and 70s who arrived in the city in search of the American Dream, which they had found in the once-prosperous medallion. But today, taxi drivers like Robert Chow, who devoted most of their adult lives to driving for the city, face a deteriorating industry trapped in financial ruin from plunging revenues and prohibitive loan payments that they are still expected to pay off. Since the invasion of ride-hailing apps in the city, there has been a 30 per cent decline for yellow taxi driver trips per day and more than a 70 per cent increase for Uber trips per day, according to data collected by the Taxi and Limousine Commission.
“The problem is directly attributed to the intervention of 50,000 Uber drivers in the city, swamping the value of the medallion,” said Graham Hodges, a former New York yellow cab driver, Colgate University historian and author of Taxi!: A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver.
For Robert Chow, who says he is determined not to end up like his brother, even his own prospects look bleak. Despite the medallion’s current worth of as little as $175,000, according to the T.L.C., Chow still owes $400,000 from his medallion loan, compounded with additional fees incurred from his house mortgage, monthly bills, his two children’s college tuition, and the monthly maintenance of his taxi cab.
With each day, his dream of retiring before age 70 is becoming less and less of a reality. “I used to work six days a week, now I’m working seven days, 15 hours a day,” said Chow, shaking his head. “And it’s still not enough. I’m 60 years old now, and I don’t know how much longer I can do this for.”
And since the beginning of February, when a $2.50 congestion surcharge was tacked onto all cabs operating below Manhattan’s 96th Street by the state of New York, Chow’s already declining income from a disintegrating taxi industry has plummeted even further.
A Chinese immigrant, Chow speaks slowly and softly, often struggling to string together sentences in English. Yet, with greying hair and crow’s feet that crinkle when he smiles, any shortcomings in Chow’s speech are easily outshined by his amicable demeanor and unapologetic attempts to express his anger.
In late February he stood among the nearly 200 taxi drivers outside Governor Cuomo’s midtown office protesting the newly-imposed congestion surcharge. “Tax the rich, not the poor!” they chanted, as a collection of horns blared in agreement from taxi cabs driving by.
It was one of the first of many weekly protests organized by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), a 21,000-member union. Alliance members fear that the fee, intended to raise money to help fix the city’s subway system, will drastically reduce already low driver incomes and chase off customers when the industry is already suffering.
Yellow cabs have lost 40 per cent in revenue since 2015 and with the imposition of the congestion surcharge, it is expected to dip by another 30 per cent, according to NYTWA executive director Bhairavi Desai.
Since its imposition on Feb. 2, the NYTWA’s main battles have been geared toward advocating for the removal of the congestion surcharge. While a surcharge on private cars and trucks is forbidden by law to go into effect before December 2020, the NYTWA argues that the entire congestion surcharge plan will crush the yellow cab industry who are by no means newcomers to the affected “yellow zone” and therefore not responsible for the congestion.
“We’re out here today because this surcharge, that exists basically on the poor, comes while there are taxes that are left on the table that could be easily put on the ultra-wealthy in New York State,” said Desai, who has led the NYTWA since she founded it in 1998.
Despite the seemingly small figure of $2.50, said Chow, every loss adds up. A minimum taxi fare has inflated to $5.80, which has meant drivers lose out on short-distance trips—passengers now look to alternatives like the shared-ride services of Uber Pool and Lyft Line which are able to provide them lower fares.
Chow said he collects more than $40 worth of the congestion surcharge every day, on average. Just last month, he paid approximately $500 to the state of New York.
“The city, the state, they don’t care about us,” Chow said.
Another taxi driver, Golam Talukder, was quick to jump in on the conversation. A father of three and a taxi driver for the past 17 years, Talukder no longer knows how he will afford to send his children to college.
“My loans are a disaster,” said the 53-year-old Bangladeshi man. “Now, I might lose my house, my medallion, everything.”
Talukder purchased a medallion for $400,000 in 2002, which to this day he is still trying to pay off. Ten years ago, before the influx of Uber, he made a minimum of $200 each day.
When asked how much he makes today, Talukder pulled out the receipt for his Monday shift from his wallet, speaking rapidly as he calculated how much he pocketed from his nine-hour shift the day before: After accounting for the congestion surcharge, tolls, taxes and other additional fees, Talkuder’s initial $143.21 dropped to $95.45.
“It’s always been a very low-esteem, poorly paid, difficult job. No one stays in it if they don’t have to,” Hodges said. However, the job was once more stable. “There was mobility, and there was stability. And now it’s all gone.”
Mimicking Talukder, Chow pulled out his own stack of crumpled receipts from his jacket pocket, along with a blue ballpoint pen. From his 12-hour shift from the previous day, Chow brought home just $239 before taxes and after accounting for the $62 worth of fees that will go to the state. Flipping over one of his receipts, Chow does the math for what he would lose each year from the congestion surcharge if he were to take no days off: circled in dark ink was a chilling figure of $22,320.
“We’re here to say to our governor, enough suicides, enough bankruptcies, enough foreclosures,” Desai said. “The thing that hurts us, is that last March, when this law was passed, we were on the steps of City Hall, mourning the four brothers who by then, had committed suicide because of economic despair.”
Taxi drivers have a name for the new congestion pricing, according to Chow. The “suicide surcharge,” they call it. But even before the imposition of the surcharge, seven taxi drivers in the past year were driven to suicide from being trapped by high financial debt from an industry years in decline.
Chow’s younger brother, Kenny Yu Mein Chow, was one of the first victims.
At the time, Chow had no idea how bad things had become for Kenny until last May when he received a call from his sister-in-law to say that his younger brother Kenny had not returned from his shift at his usual time of 9:30 p.m. Chow said he will never forget contacting the GPS company to learn the exact location that his brother’s cab was last seen, only to arrive at the spot on 86th Street and East End Avenue at 11 pm. that night to find Kenny’s parked cab with no one inside it.
Most painful of all, burned into Chow’s memory is the call he later received from the medical examiner’s office that broke the dreadful 11-day silence throughout which Chow spent worrying: floating on the East River, just under the Brooklyn Bridge, Chow was told, police found Kenny’s lifeless body.
And on 26 May, news from Kenny’s dental office, whose analysis of his teeth — the only part of Kenny’s body still identifiable — confirmed that it was indeed him.
Almost one year later, unable to fully articulate what he felt in those moments and what he still carries with him to this day, Chow breathed out a shaky sigh. “I was so sad,” he finally managed to get out.
“I think he was very depressed, that’s why he couldn’t make it. That’s why he wanted to [commit] suicide,” Chow said, glancing down at his hands interlinked on his lap. After a few beats of silence, he continues. “Not just him. All my friends, including me. We’re very depressed. We’re not making enough money, we’re thinking of going home.”
A Chinese immigrant from Myanmar, Chow and his nine other siblings moved to Queens, New York more than 30 years ago in search of better financial opportunities.
“Before I started working in this business, Uber and Lyft weren’t here yet, so we had good business,” Chow said. “My American dream was coming true. We came to New York, and we were making money. My dreams were coming true.”
The arduous odyssey of Kenny and Robert Chow is not an uncommon one. Roy Kim, the most recent taxi driver to commit suicide, was also an immigrant in search of the American dream. At 58 years old, the Korean taxi driver hanged himself with a belt in his home in Queens last November.
“If you look at the ages of the eight brothers that we’ve lost, they were men in their 60s and 70s,” Desai said at the vigil held for Roy Kim last November. “They’d given all of their adult years to driving for this city.”
Red, yellow and pink carnations drifted along the murky waters of Corona Park’s Meadow Lake in Queens on Nov. 18 as a group of 20 taxi drivers huddled around the water’s edge to mourn Kim’s death.
“He is the kindest person I have ever met in my life,” said Dong Lee, 62, a fellow driver and longtime friend. “My friend is now gone,” Lee said, before breaking down in tears.
As the vigil, held on a bleak Sunday morning, drew to a close, then-Queens state Senator-elect John Liu, gripping red carnations in his hands, said the City of New York should take responsibility for easing some of the financial burden that have driven the seven drivers to their deaths.
“The drivers have taken this business risk willingly, but in such a short amount of time, they have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Liu said. “It’s only right that the city, who’s collected those billions of dollars, also share in that lost revenue.”
City officials, after rising concerns around the driver suicides, began taking steps to alleviate some of that pain late last year. In August, the City Council approved a cap on Uber and other ride-hail vehicles in light of a 65 percent increase in ride-hail cars on New York’s streets from 2011 to July 2018. This was met with backlash from Uber, who sued the city in February in an attempt to prevent the continuation of the cap when it expires in August. In response, the T.L.C. said that they are closely monitoring the effect of the limit on for-hire vehicles.
“The trip data shows that [for-hire] daily trips continue to grow throughout the city,” said acting taxi commissioner Bill Heinzen. “Before the cap, the T.L.C. received more than 2,000 new [for-hire vehicle] applications a month, and this oversaturation in the market was harmful to driver income.”
The T.L.C., responsible for the regulation of the taxi industry, have also recently lowered the medallion transfer tax fee from five percent to 0.5 percent, which has “encouraged liquidity in the market,” according to Rebecca Harshbarger, a T.L.C. representative. And in an effort to prevent more suicides, 63 per cent of the T.L.C.’s employees have completed mental health first aid training, with a particular focus on staff that interact frequently with drivers, such as officers.
“Someone is always ready to help around the clock, every day of the year, in many different languages,” Harshbarger said.
But is it enough?
Desai is calling for the city to waive at least 20 per cent of existing loans from the medallion debt, and to establish a driver retirement program.
For Lal Singh, a 62-year-old Punjabi taxi driver, after three decades in the business, he no longer holds much hope for the future of the industry and his place in it.
“Our life is in the dark,” Singh said. “We can’t see anything in front of us — there’s no future for us. We used to feel like kings, now we feel homeless. We’re surviving off of Uber’s leftovers.”
Singh’s friend and fellow cabdriver Victor Salazar feels differently. A 54-year-old immigrant from Ecuador, Salazar considers himself one of the lucky ones. He has not, like many others, had to declare bankruptcy to stay afloat.
Pushing his black-framed glasses up the bridge of his nose, Salazar wistfully recounts his career behind the wheel. In 1993, he began driving and saving for a medallion which he secured 10 years later. In 2004, he paid $300,000, an investment that he remains proud of. “For me, it wasn’t a waste,” Salazar said.
But underneath his pride in an industry that he has devoted years of his life to, are the sacrifices he is not as willing to share. For Salazar, his beginnings as a taxi driver was not so much a choice as it was a necessity. His then-undocumented status and the birth of his first daughter left him without many other options career-wise.
“I always wanted to be an architect. I never was able to become an architect because I’m an immigrant, supporting a family,” Salazar said. “I was undocumented. And later, when I became documented, it was too late for me to go to college. I already made a family. I had to make something of my life. So I ended up purchasing a medallion.”
He now hopes to give his children the opportunities to pursue their own dreams — opportunities he did not have. Yet even those prospects seem unlikely: He, like several other taxi driver fathers, does not have the money to send his 13-year-old son to college. “He would probably have to learn how to drive the taxi in the future,” Salazar said.
Feeling trapped in a failing industry, Salazar has not much choice but to stay devoted to the medallion investment he made years ago. “It’s the only thing I know how to do now,” Salazar said. “If I sell the medallion, what am I going to do?”
For Salazar, migrating over to Uber or other e-hailing apps is out of the question.
“How would I consider moving to Uber — a company that clearly said, publicly, that they are going to replace drivers with driverless cars?” Salazar said, enraged at just the thought of it. “Giving my sweat and time to a company that one day is going to kick me in the butt and say ‘we don’t need you anymore’? I rather die with my boots on.”
Salazar often drives through Manhattan, from Harlem to Wall Street, searching in vain for passengers. While breaks are rare, the corner of 27th Street and Lexington Avenue is a popular hotspot for taxi drivers to grab a quick bite or go for a bathroom break. Indian restaurants are scattered along the block, and along with it usually sit 15 yellow taxi cabs parked outside.
One taxi driver, Mahmood Wara, a short, plump Afghani man with thick glasses, emerged from the doors of a restaurant after a break one evening. For Wara, his life at home has taken the hit for the extra hours he has had to put in to make up for the loss in income. Nowadays, he begins his shifts at 5 a.m. and clocks out at 5 p.m.
“You don’t have time for a family. To make them love you, to be with them,” Wara said. “They don’t see you. They don’t care, you’re just someone paying the bills.”
Wara has been driving for 32 years, evident in the way he confidently cruises down from Kips Bay to the Lower East Side without a single glance at a map. He hums a small tune while waiting at a red traffic light. All he seems to be doing lately, is waiting, he said.
According to Wara, he now makes 50 percent less than he used to earn before Uber arrived on the scene in 2010. A 12-hour shift today would give him $220, but after expenses, he often walks away with just $60 in his pocket. Every month, he is behind on his bills by approximately $1,000.
His oldest son of three was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth. Unable to keep up with the medical bills, Wara had his son become a ward of the state four years ago and placed into a group home, where he visits him twice a week.
“It’s not easy,” Wara said. “Life is getting harder and harder everyday. Especially when you have a blue-collar job. You don’t count. You’re just a slave.”
On the topic of depression, Wara is hesitant to answer. “It’s very hard to talk about these things because a taxi driver’s life is a miserable life,” Wara said, not taking his eyes off the road. “It’s embarrassing to talk about it because taxi drivers don’t get respect from society, they don’t get respect even from their own family.”
Wara, whose home life has been rocky since taking on more hours behind the wheel, no longer believes in love, he said. But, pulling out a black portable keyboard from the front seat of his taxi where he also stores his tambourine, recorder, harmonica, and in his trunk, his Indian drums, he lets his fingers flutter over the plastic keyboard keys. A melancholic tune fills the small space of the parked cab.
A hint of a smile played on his lips, the first of the day. “My love is now music,” he said.