Without Government Rescue, New York City Yellow Cabs Could Soon Be History

Taxi ridership declined 91 percent from normal level in the first weekend of the citywide shutdown.

A taxi drives down Times Square on March 26, 2020 in New York City. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

Few symbols represent New York City like the yellow taxicab. Omnipresent in films and near-ubiquitous in real life (at least in Manhattan), the yellow cab is a literal rite of passage for visitors and new New Yorkers (myself included). But now the charming token of New York is at risk because of COVID-19.

Already on the ropes well before the coronavirus pandemic, thanks to competition from Uber and Lyft, New York City’s taxi industry could be hitting an end soon due to COVID-19’s impact—if left without a serious government rescue package.

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As The New York Times reported last Wednesday, taxi ridership in New York City was down an astonishing 91 percent over the first weekend of statewide quarantine. Yellow cab drivers logged just 20,596 rides on Friday and Saturday. With nearly everything in New York shut down and public health officials advising against even “social monogamy” (seeing just one friend or family member), ridership is bound to get worse in the foreseeable future.

Drivers left on the road are lucky to grab two rides a day and earn $60 for ten hours’ work. As Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) told the Times, an average driver takes home about $368 a week under current circumstances. For these wages, they must ponder a life-or-death decision: expose themselves to the risk of contracting the virus, or be unable to afford food, housing and possibly driving a cab itself?

As the NYTWA points out, without immediate cash injections, both the industry and the people who staff it will be in serious trouble.

The bailout plan NYTWA proposes is simple: provide drivers with zero-interest loans; waive operating fees to cab companies for at least a few months; and, even better, refund recent payments.

Elected officials of New York City and New York state are increasingly recognizing the gravity of the crisis and want to preserve yellow cabs—either as a cultural artifact or as an essential element of New York life.

Governor Andrew Cuomo is pushing for a federal disaster assistance package to be made available for independent contractors, including taxi drivers. City Council Speaker Cory Johnson, a candidate for mayor, is working on a separate plan that would provide unemployment benefits and immediate cash subsidies ($550 per driver plus an extra $275 per child).

There may also be an opportunity for some kind of coronavirus “lend-lease” program, in which cab drivers would provide services related to anti-coronavirus efforts, such as chauffeuring nurses and doctors to hospitals and moving medical supplies. The New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC), which regulates the industry, is already offering out-of-work Uber and Lyft drivers delivery work.

Many ideas are on the table. It’s too early to say which is the closest to fruition. A TLC spokesman told the Times only that industry members, regulators and elected officials were discussing “a number of supportive measures.”

Through catastrophes like 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, yellow cabs kept running, providing a welcoming sight of normalcy in an otherwise upside-down world. But, once unthinkable, a New York without yellow cabs is now around the corner.

Without Government Rescue, New York City Yellow Cabs Could Soon Be History