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.