Notably, the drivers who’ve heeded the call are almost all immigrants, like my father, who was himself a driver long ago, and the man who turned me away a little over 20 years ago. Indeed, the story of professional drivers in New York City arguably makes the case for low-skill immigration. Rather than competing with well-off native-born New Yorkers, immigrant drivers are complementing them by ferrying them from their well-appointed lofts to their spacious offices to their favorite ethnic restaurants. As of 2016, 91 percent of the city’s professional drivers were immigrants, many of whom hail from the world’s poorest countries. Half of all drivers of non-app-based for-hire vehicles, traditionally the most lucrative slice of the market, hail from the Dominican Republic. Almost a quarter of taxi drivers, meanwhile, are originally from Bangladesh. Together, the marriage of new technology and the globalization of New York City’s low-wage labor market has left consumers much better off. Finding someone to drive you home for money has never been easier, and no doubt many of the women and (mostly) men doing the driving are delighted to have found remunerative work. What we have here, certainly at first glance, is a classic free-market success story. Recently, though, the dark side of the story has been growing rather conspicuous.
Since December, there has been a rash of apparent suicides among the city’s taxi drivers. And if their advocates are to be believed, and I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, these few deaths speak to the despair experienced by thousands of other drivers. Sensing an opportunity to make their voices heard, taxi drivers and their champions are pointing to the rise of ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft as the source of their woes. That is, the same disruptive force that has so enriched consumers and drivers has also, according to this line of argument, immiserated taxi drivers, especially those who’ve invested their life’s savings in purchasing taxi medallions. Once prized as a virtual guarantee of financial security, these medallions, which grant their owners the right to operate a taxi and to lease it to someone else, have plummeted in value as the rise of app-based services has given New Yorkers a convenient alternative to hailing a yellow cab. One libertarian scholar, Peter Van Doren, has argued, “the medallion market was like a fairly priced lottery ticket that took into account the possibility of deregulation,” and he makes a compelling case. But that is small comfort for the people who’ve been financially ruined in the crash, such as Yu Mein Chow, the most recent of the taxi drivers said to have taken his own life.
In an interview with Vincent Barone of am New York, Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, insisted that something must be done about the resulting labor glut: “We now have a saturation of tens of thousands of workers, even after working 10-, 12-, 14-hour shifts, [who] are talking about hunger and poverty, and that’s not acceptable.” With this in mind, Desai has called for imposing more stringent regulations on the ride-hailing sector, to create a more level playing field and, presumably, to desaturate the pool of drivers. The end result would undoubtedly be better for the immigrant taxi drivers she represents, many of whom have been in the country for a little while, and who don’t want to toil for poverty-level wages for the rest of their lives.