The Covid-19 pandemic threatens New York’s iconic yellow cabs

They were omnipresent day and night on the streets of New York and were just as much a symbol of the Big Apple as the Empire State Building or the Yankees hats. But the pandemic has made yellow taxis scarce and faces an uncertain future.

On a February morning in a parking lot near La Guardia Airport, a few dozen of the yellow taxis patiently queue in the freezing cold to collect a fare from one of the terminals.

“This lot used to be full of hundreds of taxis and even a line outside,” 65-year-old Joey Olivo recalls the days before the coronavirus.

“Now it’s only about 50 and you wait two hours before waiting 20 minutes,” adds Olivo, a taxi driver for three decades.

The widespread work from home, school closings, and no tourists mean journeys have decreased for Olivo, as for all New York taxi drivers.

“It was pretty bad. My income went down by 80%. I was making maybe $ 1,000 (RM4,040) a week and $ 200 (RM 808) or $ 300 (RM 1,212) a week, ”he said.

Olivo, who lives in Brooklyn, tries to give his situation a brave face and jokes that he is lucky that his wife “makes good money” as a nurse, otherwise “I would have had a rope around my neck”.

New York taxi drivers, most of whom are first-generation immigrants, could make $ 7,000 (RM 28,280) a month or more if they worked seven days a week.

Competition from Uber, Lyft and other rental car companies had already weighed heavily on their incomes, but the pandemic is in “free fall,” says Richard Chow, a 62-year-old taxi driver from Myanmar.

Chow doesn’t feel the press as much as most of the others because in 2006 he bought his license, known in New York as the “medallion”, for $ 410,000 (RM 1.65 million).

In the years that followed, medallion prices rose, puffed up by a group of bankers, investors, and lawyers.

In 2009, his younger brother Kenny Chow paid $ 750,000 (RM 3.03 million) for his license. In 2014, the medallion cost was $ 1 million (RM 4.04 million).

The arrival of thousands of new drivers working for Uber and others has resulted in the medallion bubble bursting and sentenced thousands of taxi drivers who bought medallions at high borrowing costs to go into debt or bankruptcy.

Kenny and at least seven other drivers, including black cars and sedans, committed suicide in 2018, underscoring a dire situation made worse by the pandemic.

“The pandemic was just devastating,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the Taxi Workers Alliance.

“Before the pandemic, the number of drivers had dropped by 50%. It has dropped closer to 90% since the pandemic, ”she said.

“The most deserted parts of the city are the parts of Manhattan that drivers rely on for a living and the airports,” Desai added.

Hence the lack of yellow taxis. According to the union, of around 13,000 licenses, only around 5,000 taxis drive regularly.

About 7,000 others don’t even leave their garages. According to William Pierre, a driver from Haiti, it is no longer profitable.

He continues to drive even though his daily income barely exceeds $ 100 to $ 150 (RM 404 to 606), which he shares 50/50 with the company that rents the car to him.

“I don’t want to stay at home. I want to be out there to support my family, ”he says.

Could the yellow taxis that replaced the plaid striped taxis in the 1960s actually go away?

Cultural icon

Olivo and Pierre believe that business will eventually pick up, although they both agree it will never be the same again.

Desai fears that yellow taxis will “slowly run out” if the city government does not clear the driver’s debt.

Your union stepped up protests and dozens of drivers recently temporarily blocked traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge.

“You know you’re in NYC when you see this yellow,” says Desai, adding that the cabs are famous all over the world.

“It’s a cultural icon … a 24-hour service that is part of the economic, social and cultural fabric of our beautiful city.”

The Democratic Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, has promised to help the taxi drivers, provided the city, economically devastated by the pandemic, is saved by the federal government.

“When we get the kind of stimulus support we deserve. I think it opens the door to a solution to help taxi drivers and families who have suffered so much, ”he said. – AFP

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