This article is published in our Perspectives section. Daniel Efram is a photojournalist, activist, and producer based in New York City.
For the past 19 nights, a group of New York City cab drivers have camped outside of City Hall. Many of the drivers are working-class Asian immigrants who say that the Taxi and Limousine Commission’s mismanagement of the taxi medallion program has left them hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. (As New York Focus previously reported, the city artificially inflated the price of taxi medallions as part of a strategy to raise revenue, which resulted in drivers having to take out exorbitant loans to buy the right to operate a cab in New York City.)
“The City told drivers that buying a medallion was a ticket to the middle-class,” New York State Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani, who joined the rally outside City Hall, told New York Focus. “It told them that if they worked long hours, drove New Yorkers to all corners of this city, they too could live out the American Dream that they immigrated to this country for. Drivers did all that was asked of them, but instead of stability, they were left with medallion prices that were artificially inflated, 36% of their revenue wiped out by the unregulated influx of Lyft and Uber, and the ensuing hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.”
Earlier this week, the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) voted to approve a plan from Mayor de Blasio which would provide $65 million in grants to struggling drivers. But the drivers and their union, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) say that the plan does not go far enough, because it does not include a city-backed loan guarantee.
“The City played a role in every aspect of this crisis and now it must resolve it with a debt relief plan that reckons with the true scale of this tragedy,” Mamdani said. “Mayor de Blasio and the TLC’s current plan falls far short of doing that — it leaves drivers in debt that is unaffordable and unmanageable. The City must adopt NYTWA’s relief plan and guarantee the loan restructuring of drivers’ debts – bringing banks and lenders to the table to create a solution that gives drivers back their dignity.”
Mamdani is not the only progressive politician who has shown support for the drivers. State Senator Jessica Ramos has introduced a bill On Wednesday, a dozen members of New York’s Congressional delegation — including Sen. Chuck Schumer, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rep. Ritchie Torres — wrote a letter to de Blasio urging him to adopt the NYTWA’s proposal for a city-backed loan guarantee.
Later this morning, the City Council is scheduled to hold an oversight hearing on the taxi medallion debt relief proposals. Members of the NYTWA have threatened to go on a hunger strike if the City Council refuses their demands.
The drivers are desperate. Many will face financial ruin if the city cannot help them refinance their debts. Below are eleven of their stories.
Mahbub Choudhury has been driving a cab since 1986. He has endured trauma and racism as a reaction to 9/11 and survived multiple serious health issues, including bypass surgery, all while trying to support his Queens family of seven.
“My father came to NYC in 1986 in hopes of creating a better life for his family. He started off as a busboy, to a service worker, to working with taxi cabs — when he saved up the right amount of money, he bought himself a medallion; it was at that moment he started to think, ‘Maybe I can have the American Dream,’” said his daughter Zohura Choudhury.
“He started working 12-hour days six days a week for the future of the people he loves,” she said. “Fast forward to September 11th, 2001, a tragic day for all Americans … Unfortunately, after 9/11, people didn’t see my dad as an American anymore but as a terrorist because of the color of his skin. I started hearing stories of how people treated him, how he would get robbed or held at gunpoint.”
Choudhury is currently $296,000 in debt, due to loans he had to take out in order to finance the purchase of his taxi medallion.
John Asmah has supported his Queens family of four for 20 years by driving a cab. But he had to take out extensive loans in order to afford the medallion that gave him the right to operate a cab in New York City, and he now owes over $700,000 to creditors.
Tariq Munir spends about $4,000 each month on operating expenses, which seems to be the norm for cab drivers in New York City. That means he must earn back $4,000 each month before he can pay for food for his Queens family of seven — or begin to pay down his taxi medallion debt.
Richard Chow has been a cab driver for sixteen years. His younger brother, Kenny, was also a New York City cabbie. In 2018, Kenny committed suicide. At the time, he owed more than $600,000 in medallion loans. Richard still owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to medallion creditors.
Ugyen Pema has been a NYC cab driver for approximately eighteen years, but is $400,000 in debt to his medallion with expenses of approximately $4,000 a month.
Suves Bairagi is a 23-year cabbie supporting a family of five of Queens. He has a whopping $707,000 in medallion debt and $6,000 per month in expenses.
Mohammed Islam has been a New York City cabbie for 22 years. He currently carries a medallion debt of $536,000.
Brooklyn’s Michael Tong has been driving since 1985 and is currently $170,000 in debt, with a family of four to support.
A New York City cabbie for 30 years, Francis Tong has raised a family of five in Brooklyn but currently has $431,000 of medallion debt.
Brooklyn-based cabbie Wain Chin has been driving a cab in the city for 20 years. He has a family of five to support and a medallion debt of $500,000.
Augustine Tang, a Brooklyn resident, has been driving for five years and is $495,000 in the hole for his medallion, with expenses of $5,000 per month. He believes it’s his duty to be at the overnight rally at City Hall.
“I really admire the drivers who have been doing this for 20, 30, 40 years,” Tang said. “Driving isn’t for everyone. You really need to learn patience in this city. You try your best and you shouldn’t carry the stress around with you.”