The Uber-generated chaos and despair in the taxi industry, a calamity that has turned my world upside down, was underscored by the spate of recent tragic suicides of livery drivers, and even one of my own fellow medallion owners.
It is telling that it took someone’s ultimate sacrifice to get the media’s attention to what has become a desperate situation, especially among taxi medallion owners who have a far greater financial burden and stress than anyone else in the transportation industry.
In this seemingly hopeless situation, however, there is one lawmaker, City Councilman Ruben Diaz Sr., who isn’t afraid of the $60 billion corporate predator. Diaz chairs the newly created For Hire Vehicle Committee and is advancing legislation that would strike a dagger in the heart of Uber’s hitherto favored-nation status.
A New York City elected official unafraid of challenging corporate power—what a breath of fresh air! Historians will spend years trying to understand how politicians who claim to fight for social justice simply acted as lackeys for the hedge-fund 1%.
I came to this country 27 years ago from Punjab, India. I came from a family of farmers, but a vision of America and a better life motivated me—like so many other immigrants—to leave all that was familiar for better economic opportunity.
Still, nothing came easy. I worked long hours for over 10 years trying to save enough money to realize my dream: owning a New York City taxi medallion. I had watched as thousands of my former countrymen took this route to the middle class. I was convinced that I could as well.
In 2006, when I had finally accumulated enough money, I purchased a taxi medallion for $357,000. For the better part of the next decade, my investment—supposedly backed by the full faith and credit of New York City—increased every year. By 2014, as medallions were being sold for as much as $1.4 million, I thought that my future was secure.
What I couldn’t have foreseen was the Uber tsunami that swept through and undermined the medallion system that had been in place for over almost 80 years. Uber’s entry, unencumbered by the same mandates and fees that I had to pay, began to destroy all that I and thousands of other immigrants had worked so hard for. Just imagine if your 401(k) were wiped out because regulators failed to do their job.
But Uber was only the catalyst for an unsustainable proliferation that is costing city businesses more than $20 billion a year. The real culprits were asleep-at-the-switch taxi regulators who failed to provide legitimate barriers to entry for Uber. If they had, they would have been able to protect medallion owners’ investments—and the public’s interest in uncongested streets and well-funded mass transit as well.
I now drive between 11 and 13 hours a day just to break even. Many other owners helplessly watch lenders foreclose on their houses while taking back the medallions that are no longer worth even 20% of what they were when purchased. It’s hard to imagine that I will ever be able to recoup what I have put into this system.
Now along comes Diaz’s bill and an assortment of others that are aligned with his. They would make for-hire vehicle licenses a separate category for regulation, charge each Uber and Lyft driver a $2,000 annual FHV license fee and require—just as the city does of taxis—that these app-based services conduct environmental and need-for-service analyses before getting permission to put more cars on congested city streets. The bills, recognizing Uber’s unrestrained discrimination against people with disabilities, will also mandate that at least 25% of all FHVs be wheelchair-accessible.
This is a long-overdue first step to reducing congestion-causing Ubers and creating regulatory parity. We need all of our elected officials to unite on this issue before all 6,000 or so of my immigrant brothers and sisters are wiped out by Uber. As Public Citizen has pointed out: “This giant and powerful corporation portrays itself as the scrappy rival to entrenched interests, but it is in fact able to deploy far greater political power than its public-interest and commercial rivals. In cities across the country, Uber is ‘disrupting’ local democracy.”
Uppkar Thind is an individual taxi medallion owner.
- At last: a glimmer of hope for New York’s taxi operators?