How Uber killed New York's taxis, and dreams of immigrants like my father
A story rarely told in the media

by 10
3rd June 2018

[Last week a taxi driver in New York committed suicide - the fifth in five months.]

by Mandeep Singh

When my pops first moved to the United States with my mom and older sister, he did a few odd jobs until he became a taxi driver.

For many immigrants who didn't have a formal education, it was an incredible way to make ends meet and even save money for other ventures

As the years went by, the dream became to own your own medallion.

A small little plate with four digits on it that gave you the exclusive right to pick up street hails, a right that only those owning or leasing one could do (for a long time). The benefits of owning are very similar to owning your home vs renting. You become your own boss, put money towards your own asset and was a marker of upward social mobility.

Many Punjabi immigrant men in the 1990s were single, so their living costs were low and medallions were also affordable. As a result, a handful of my dad's friends and cousins were able to get them early on. Since my pops had move over with his family and had me and my younger sisters shortly after, he didn't have the same luxury of being able to buying when the cost was low.

He never forgot his dream though.

Around the early 2010s, the city released a new group of medallions to the market. Medallions were a way to regulate supply and demand. And since demand had increased a ton and supply had virtually been constant since the Second World War, they were trying to compensate. Being in a much better financial position in 2014, my pops put his turban in the ring for an auction that was happening.

Lo and behold, he was able to win a bid, get his savings together, and finally became an owner of a taxi medallion-- meeting his multi-decade old dream. My cousin had just arrived from India. In efforts to make his transition easier and give us both an asset to hold onto, he purchased it in our names.

Nothing makes a Punjabi father more proud to know he left his family in a better condition and did all that he could.

The medallion he bid for cost more than $700K, roughly about $100K at point of sale, for a handicap accessible medallion. One of the highest ever prices historically.

Sounds absurd, right?

Why NYC taxi medallions are so expensive

From the 1940s to 2014, taxi medallions had been a better investment than any other conventional investment. My father also saw this first hand through the growth in value of his friends' medallions that were purchased in the early '90s. It was also still more cost effective to own one than to lease one. Being the optimist he is, he valued the role that drivers played. On top of a world class public transportation system, taxis were an iconic part of both the aesthetic and the underbelly of the economy.

It all changed in 2015.

Uber, Lyft and other ride share companies proliferated in the market. The reason why medallion prices were so high is because there was a limited supply but high demand. That model broke when ride sharing apps changed the definition of a street hail. As ride sharing proliferated, taxi work slowed down and medallion values tanked.

What's the value of something that no one longer wants to buy? We now had a $600+K loan in our names in a market where demand is slow and the value is non-existent.

The NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission, nor the Mayor did anything to help driver owners and fight for the half century old industry.

Filing for bankruptcy

After looking at the political and economic climate, I decided to file for bankruptcy in September 2017. Taxi medallions will never be worth what they are, nor did I want my family and I to carry this weight any longer.

With privilege, I'll be okay. I'm blessed to have a job that pays well and my credit score is already recovering. However, I can't say the same for so many others struggling with the collapse of the industry. As a result of my filing, the bank whose loan I defaulted on came to our taxi parked outside our house and took off the medallion. Rendering the car useless and putting both my dad and father out of immediate jobs.

What breaks me the most of the most is imagining my father leaving the house at the crack of dawn to take the day on. Bag of water and fruit in hand, he probably just paused in disbelief that the moment was there. He knew it was coming, but now it's a reality.

My sister saw him come back inside and put his bag down. His voice weak, tears in his eyes. He told her that after 25 years of blood, sweat, and tears, he was a failure. He's back to where he started.

Weakness in the strongest person you know is a pain difficult pain to describe.

I called him after to see how he was doing. He was cleaning the taxi that properly looks naked now. Picking up loose change left in between seats, the broken shards of a three decade dream. He said he knew it was coming, but it's hard.

It was $100K and a lot of time not spent with us that he could have spent with us that he didn't in chasing the dream.

In whatever Punjabi words I could summon up, I reminded him that he was not a failure. He has raised more than 4 successful children, brought his nuclear and extended family across continents, has made multiple other investments. No small feat for any one person.

His road to recovery will be a long one. We will be here to remind him of all that he has accomplished.

In the meanwhile, I urge his narrative isn't forgotten in this age of technology and globalization. There is still much healing and progress to be made in our communities.

Mandeep Singh tweets at: @mandeepnyc
This was adapted from his tweets and republished with permission.