Last September, a group of New York taxi drivers parked their yellow cabs on the street and themselves on the sidewalk in front of City Hall. For nearly two months, a rotating team occupied the block 24/7 to protest debt relief.

Thousands of local taxi drivers – many of whom are immigrants from Asia nearing or past retirement age – have been crushed by debt in recent years. At least nine drivers have died by suicide, according to protesters. This financial distress was not entirely caused by competition from Uber and Lyft. Ride-sharing services, which have 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 several city-issued medallions. For decades, these medallions were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Although drivers had to take out loans to pay for them, most believed the investment was worth it, protesters said. Taxi drivers who wanted to retire could sell or rent their medallions and live off the proceeds.

But in the early 2000s, the city’s Taxi and Limo Commission allowed private lenders to inflate the price of taxi medallions, which brought in revenue for the city government in addition to bringing in money for banks and credit unions. Medallions peaked at $1 million in 2014 before the bubble bursts and prices crash. Thousands of drivers have been left with debts that largely exceeded the new value of their medallions. At the end of 2021, the situation reached a breaking point.

Protesters at City Hall came to the United States from Bangladesh, China, Ivory Coast, Haiti, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Romania, Taiwan and the Tibet. Many now live in immigrant neighborhoods in Queens and are members of the New York Taxi Alliance, union of professional drivers. The spouses, siblings and adult children of the deceased drivers also joined the protest.

In October, after a month of silence from the municipal administration, drivers and supporters intensified their tactics by starting a 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. US Senator Chuck Schumer, whose stepfather drove a taxi, also stepped in to help negotiate with former Mayor Bill de Blasio and his administration.

Then, in November, the taxi drivers finally got a reprieve. Marblegate Asset Management, the largest holder of taxi medallion loans, has agreed to reduce loans to one maximum of $200,000, with monthly payments capped at $1,122. The city will provide $30,000 for each loan and guarantee the rest if the drivers default. It’s still huge sums of money to pay for a taxi driver, but amid the industry’s years-long crisis, the deal finally offers hope.

A memorial outside New York City Hall lists the names of taxi drivers who died by suicide. Many drivers face crippling debt buying the now devalued medallions needed to own and operate taxis in the city. October 18, 2021. [Credit: Delger Erdenesanaa]

A small crowd of people stand around a plastic folding table set up in a park.  At the front of the group, an old man with silver hair leans over the table and signs his name on a large sheet of paper.

Mohammed Islam goes on a hunger strike until New York City officials agree to help taxi drivers pay off their loans. In the early 2000s, local drivers borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars each to buy taxi medallions at the height of a now burst financial bubble. October 18, 2021. [Credit: Delger Erdenesanaa]

A crowd of protesters holding signs stand in a park.  An older man in the center of the group, his eyes closed, is framed by cameras in the foreground.

Richard Chow, who lost his brother to suicide, leads a rally of New York taxi drivers calling for debt relief. Chow protested outside City Hall every day for nearly two months, eventually going on a hunger strike. October 18, 2021. [Credit: Delger Erdenesanaa]

A woman wearing a medical mask looks into the camera, holding a sign saying

Dorina Nitescu, at a protest on the anniversary of her husband Dan’s death, holds a sign referencing the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission. Dan was one of thousands of taxi drivers who bought medallions at inflated prices from the agency. October 18, 2021. [Credit: Delger Erdenesanaa]

A group of people walk down a city street with protest signs.  The biggest bed

New York City taxi drivers and their supporters march around City Hall after announcing a hunger strike for medallion debt relief. Many protesters are members of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and wear shirts and signs with the union logo. October 18, 2021. [Credit: Delger Erdenesanaa]

A man in a medical mask speaks into a megaphone with one hand raised in the air.  A crowd of people holding protest stalls stand around him, with downtown New York buildings behind them.

A taxi driver, whose New York taxi medallion is now worth far less than it owes, speaks at a protest for debt relief. He asks former mayor Bill de Blasio (absent) “what should I tell my 2 year old?” October 20, 2021. [Credit: Delger Erdenesanaa]

People on one side of a long table set up outdoors on a New York street serve food on paper plates to people on the other side.

New York taxi drivers and their supporters – mostly immigrants or children of immigrants from Asia – share a meal of chai and South Asian dishes before going on a hunger strike for relief medallion debt. October 18, 2021. [Credit: Delger Erdenesanaa]

Two young people sit side by side on folding plastic chairs on a New York street.  Both wear long, thin strips of red cloth tied around their arms.

New York taxi driver Amninder Chahal (L) and local organizer Jaslin Kaur (R), a driver’s daughter, wear armbands signifying they are on hunger strike for debt relief . October 20, 2021. [Credit: Delger Erdenesanaa]

The back of a yellow taxi is filled with coconut water, plastic noisemakers, paper cups and other protest supplies.  A sign reading

A yellow cab outside New York City Hall is filled with supplies during a 24/7 protest by taxi drivers for debt relief. Dozens come and go during the day, and a few sleep in their cars overnight at the protest site. October 20, 2021. [Credit: Delger Erdenesanaa]

Three older men talk on a dark New York sidewalk, with yellow cabs parked on the street behind them.  Two of the men are seated on plastic folding chairs and one has his face (with a medical mask) lit up by the streetlights.

Taxi drivers, New York Taxi Workers Alliance union staff and friends linger the night outside City Hall after another day of protesting for debt relief. October 20, 2021. [Credit: Delger Erdenesanaa]

Colorful chalk drawings and children's writings are lit by streetlights on a dark city sidewalk.  Inside a heart are the names Fatima, Saad and Aynan, and a message below the heart reads

Families of NYC taxi drivers striking for debt relief stop to write messages of support on the sidewalk outside City Hall. October 20, 2021. [Credit: Delger Erdenesanaa]