NEW YORK – New York City’s taxi industry had been struggling prior to the coronavirus crisis and now has been pummeled by lockdown measures aimed at controlling the spread of the pandemic.
Now, as cab drivers anxiously wait for the “city that never sleeps” to spring back to life, they are holding out hope that fear of a possible resurgence of COVID-19 in the Big Apple will trigger a change in people’s habits and cause them to make greater use of their services.
New York City’s medallion (yellow) taxis have long been one of its most iconic symbols, but that sector has suffered a devastating plunge in activity as a result of state-wide coronavirus-triggered stay-at-home orders and closures of non-essential businesses.
Although official figures are lacking, a quick glance at this normally bustling metropolis’ now half-empty streets is enough to appreciate the devastating impact. Officials in that sector say taxi drivers have suffered a roughly 70% drop in revenue due to the coronavirus crisis, although others say the loss of income has been even steeper.
“Our business is in the dumps,” the founder and spokesman of the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers, Fernando Mateo, told EFE, adding that cab drivers’ activities have been essentially reduced to transporting doctors, nurses and patients to and from hospitals.
Andui Segura, a Hispanic taxi driver, said he previously made 20 trips per day but now can only scrape out half of that total. “It’s hit us hard,” he said while driving through the streets of Brooklyn.
Cab drivers frequently must wait hours for their next customer, a situation that has led many of them to stay at home and not put their own health, or that of their families, at risk. Even so, COVID-19 is blamed for the deaths of at least two dozen taxi drivers.
For many of these professionals, remaining idle is not an option. A large majority of New York City taxi drivers are immigrants who lack savings or have family members abroad who depend on the remittances they send back to their home countries.
The city government has sought ways to help out these struggling workers, including hiring many of them part-time to distribute food to needy local residents or transport essential workers during pre-dawn hours when the subway system is being disinfected.
But still there is not enough work for everyone.
The pandemic arrived at an especially challenging time for the taxi industry worldwide due to heavy competition from app-based ride services like Uber and Lyft, which for years have been taking business away from those traditional services.
But the crisis for cab drivers is particularly acute in the Big Apple because many taxi medallion owners had gone into heavy debt to obtain those essential licenses.
Between 2002 and 2014, the cost to purchase a New York City taxi medallion – the permit needed to operate a yellow cab in the metropolis’ five boroughs – rose from around $200,000 to more than $1 million, although that bubble subsequently burst because the arrival of Uber and Lyft drove many drivers, most of them immigrants, to financial ruin.
Predatory loans that different lenders provided to vulnerable taxi drivers – and which even led to a wave of suicides – were the subject of an investigative report that earned Brian Rosenthal of the New York Times a Pulitzer Prize last month.
And it’s not only the yellow cabs that have been hard hit by the coronavirus crisis. Thousands of non-medallion drivers in New York City who operate mainly outside Manhattan and serve lower-income communities also have been adversely affected.
“I think this has put another nail in the coffin, because it exacerbated the precarious situation that already existed,” said Cira Angeles, spokeswoman for the Livery Base Owners Association, which represents owners of establishments that dispatch these so-called “livery cabs.”
Angeles, however, said she thinks it’s possible the taxi sector will recover more quickly than other industries because many people will be afraid to use mass public transportation when New York City reopens for business.
Mateo is even more optimistic, saying that he believes the taxi industry will grow and be one of the main beneficiaries of the crisis.
“I think taxi drivers are going to have the opportunity to earn much more than before. People aren’t going to want to use mass transportation,” the spokesman for the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers said.
He added that drivers are now impatient while waiting for the lockdown order to be lifted.
“We think life should now get back to normal.”