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Coronavirus Decimates N.Y.C. Taxi Industry: ‘The Worst It’s Ever Been’


There are so few travelers left at Kennedy International Airport, one of the world’s busiest airfields, that taxis wait six hours or more for a single passenger.

Taxi companies can no longer find enough drivers for their fleets because there is so little business.

And some cabdrivers are so fearful of being exposed to the coronavirus they are staying home with no way to pay mounting bills.

All this at a time when many of New York City’s taxi owners are already in financial ruin after taking out reckless loans to buy medallions — city-issued permits required to own a yellow cab — at artificially inflated prices, with the reassurance of the city’s taxi commission of their high value.

Their industry has increasingly lost riders to the boom in Uber, Lyft and ride-app services, and been shaken by a spate of suicides by desperate taxi owners and for-hire drivers.

Now taxi owners and drivers who were barely holding on said their livelihood had evaporated as the city all but shut down to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“When you have to wait six or seven hours to get one passenger, it’s really bad,” said Mario Darius, 66, a taxi owner who was camped out at Kennedy Airport after picking up just three fares in three days.

Though citywide taxi ridership numbers for March are not yet available, some taxi companies, cab owners and drivers said their rides had plunged by two-thirds or more.

The city’s largest taxi group, the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, which represents the owners of 5,500 yellow cabs, said rides had dropped nearly 91 percent to a total of 20,596 trips over this past Friday, Saturday and Sunday. That is compared with 217,540 total trips for the same three days three weeks ago.

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents about 21,000 taxi and ride-app drivers, said a detailed survey of seven members who are taxi drivers found they earned an average of $368 — not including expenses, gas or taxes — from March 15 to March 21, a 71 percent drop from $1,260 two weeks earlier.

Bhairavi Desai, the alliance’s executive director, said it had received calls from dozens of taxi drivers who can no longer afford to pay for necessities like groceries and medicine.

“They are facing immediate loss of income when they have no savings to fall back on and an uncertain future as to when the economy will begin to recover,” she said. “It’s devastating. I thought we had hit a low point already.”

Across the country, taxi and ride-app drivers have seen their business all but disappear in cities like San Francisco, where people have been ordered to shelter in place, as well as other communities, including Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington.

Taxi owners need immediate help to survive, Ms. Desai said, including making interest-free city loans available and requiring lenders to partially forgive loans for medallions and temporarily suspend collection of loan payments.

And she urged that state unemployment benefits be extended to taxi drivers, who are considered independent contractors and do not qualify.

A spokesman for New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, which regulates the for-hire driving industry, said officials were working with the taxi industry and government agencies “on a number of supportive measures” but declined to give any details, saying discussions were ongoing.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was seeking federal disaster assistance that would provide unemployment benefits to contract workers, including taxi drivers.

The City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, a Democrat who is running for mayor, has proposed a $12 billion relief plan for businesses and workers impacted by the coronavirus — which would cover for-hire drivers. The plan includes expanded unemployment benefits and an immediate payout of $550 to every adult and $275 to every child.

“This crisis is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” said Mr. Johnson, who has led recent efforts to help the ailing taxi industry. “Every New Yorker is struggling, and for-hire vehicle drivers are among the hardest hit.”

A sample pool of 5,533 for-hire drivers in New York City — most of whom work for Uber and other ride apps — found that they drove significantly fewer hours and miles, according to Nexar, a software company that analyzes data from its network of smart dashboard cameras.

On March 18, they drove an average of 3 hours and 35 minutes, down 39 percent from 5 hours and 50 minutes on a typical Wednesday. They also covered an average of 48 miles, a 32 percent drop from 71 miles.

“This is so massive and so sudden, it’s a shock to the system,” said Eran Shir, Nexar’s co-founder and chief executive officer, who has seen similar drops in other cities. “We’ve never seen anything like that.”

Uber and Lyft declined to release their ride numbers in New York.

But Uber’s chief executive officer, Dara Khosrowshahi, said in a March 19 call with investors that bookings for rides in Seattle and other hard-hit areas had fallen by as much as 60 to 70 percent.

New York City has about 200,000 for-hire drivers licensed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission. The drivers are issued a universal license that allows them to drive yellow taxis, which are capped at nearly 13,600 by the city, and for ride-app services.

The commission, which tracks taxi ridership numbers, has only collected data through January, well before coronavirus reached New York.

Michael Woloz, a longtime taxi industry consultant, said taxi garages had stayed open through some of the city’s worst crises — including the Sept. 11 terror attacks and Hurricane Sandy — but were reeling from the coronavirus fallout.

Many garages, he said, were taking extraordinary steps to get their taxis out on the streets, including reducing leasing fees for drivers by as much as two-thirds.

Other garages were waiving leasing fees altogether, and instead waiting until the end of drivers’ shifts to see if there was any profit to split.

“Right now, it’s the worst it’s ever been,” Mr. Woloz said.

At Kennedy Airport, taxi drivers are stuck in a central holding area for hours before finally being dispatched to pick up passengers at the terminals.

The other day, dozens of taxis were lined up, with some drivers talking on their cellphones to pass the time while others leaned back for a nap.

Edrice Ulysses, 57, of Brooklyn, pounded on his steering wheel in frustration. “Every day one fare,” he said. ”Eight hours, nine hours, ten hours, one fare.”

Marc Petit-Homme, 54, a yellow taxi driver for nearly three decades, said the airport was so slow one day that he finally gave up and drove to Manhattan looking for passengers.

But over five hours, he made just $49 — normally, it would be five or 10 times that much.

So the next day, he was back at the airport. Waiting. “The last two weeks, we suffer,” said Mr. Petit-Homme, as he paced nervously beside his taxi.

Many taxi drivers said their financial worries were compounded by fears of catching the virus and passing it on to their families.

Nino Hervias, a taxi owner who is 61 and had pneumonia last year, has not driven his taxi since March 17.

Mr. Hervias, who has a loan of more than half-a-million dollars on his medallion, said he cannot make the monthly payments on that or on the mortgage on his family’s home in New Jersey, or even cover their everyday living expenses.

“We have food for another two days,’’ he said.

Other taxi owners and drivers are taking their chances, armed with hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.

Wilfred Fequiere, 64, who lives in Queens and has driven a cab for 35 years, said he used to average a dozen passengers a day. Now, it is two passengers, if he is lucky, but sometimes none at all.

“Before it wasn’t good,” he said. “Now it’s worse.”

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