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The New York Taxi Cab: a Journey Through Traffic's Changing Landscape

Luc Detiger

The photos in this book are paired with drivers' interviews or vignettes that I’ve written. The photos were taken on my film camera at taxi driver centers, gas stations, intersections, and streets throughout New York City. The vignettes include my research as well as some of my own thoughts on the subjects.

It was a breezy October night and I was about to go to bed. I needed a new photo series to shoot. I thought of the things that captured my life growing up in New York City. I love the energy of the city and the people that make it spin. I was looking for a new approach to capture the New York hustle, a subject I had not yet focused on. "What is the New York hustle?" I thought to myself as my eyes became heavy. I immediately thought of cars, honking, and traffic. "But what is unique about classic New York City traffic?" The yellow cab. The next day at dinner, I presented the idea of doing a photo series of taxi drivers to my family. My brother said, “Yeah, taxis are a symbol of New York... The yellow cab, you know. Everyone knows New York for the yellow cab.� My brother only described the vehicle itself and not the person behind the wheel. That helped me realize how New Yorkers operate: we only care about getting from point A to point B. However, the experience for anyone besides a New Yorker is different. A taxi makes them feel like part of the city. You can't miss it: the iconic vibrant yellow catches your eye dozens of blocks away. It's quintessential New York, a symbol of the hustle. The car is world famous, but who are the people behind it?

After dinner, I put on my jacket and shoes and was ready to go out for the night. I unlocked my phone and called an Uber. Five minutes later I was with Maninder in his black Toyota Camry.

As Maninder and I drove a few blocks down Broadway, we passed by what used to be the closest gas station to my house. Now it's a depressing construction zone for an 80,000 square foot luxury retail and office building.

I remembered the frenzy of taxi drivers that used to get gas there. Where do they get their gas now? My first leap into this project was to find other gas stations in Manhattan to find drivers to photograph.

The following photographs are from one of the few remaining gas stations in Manhattan.

It is located on 10th avenue and 36th Street.

The next portion of my exploration was at a taxi garage.

After photographing the gas station, I thought I needed more of a direct input from the drivers. I looked online for the best places where taxi drivers hang out between shifts. I found a taxi garage on 21st street between 6th and 7th. I called their office and I told them my story, that I was a student, and that I would like to interview and photograph the drivers.

A few days later, I went to the taxi garage. I wanted to see if I could catch a few of the drivers during their breaks.

When I arrived, I interviewed and photographed some of the drivers and took pictures of the office.

Interview 1 Where originally are you from? I’m very complicated. I’m from three different countries. I was born in the Ivory Coast, my mom is from Mauritania, my dad is from Mali, so I don’t know which citizenship I should get… [laughs]. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen driving in new York for cab drivers? Business has really changed. Uber came in place. Big drop in revenue of cab drivers. At least 30 to 35 percent. Basically cab drivers are making a lot less money than before. Because of Uber? Yes because of Uber. In the past it was exclusively yellow taxi drivers. Now its maybe 5 or ten times more Ubers than taxi drivers. The other thing its that it’s a lot of traffic. Maybe 6000 or more Uber. There’s more congestion, they’re double parked, standing outside to pick someone up, and it could take an extra five or ten minutes to get around the car, you know… it adds a lot of traffic. [...]

"The highest concentration of yellow taxi drivers comes from Bangladesh, with over 10,250 drivers. Drivers from Bangladesh now represent 23.1% of all yellow taxi drivers. Pakistan comes in second with 5,850 yellow taxi drivers (about 13.2% of all yellow taxi drivers). This represents a shift from 2005, when the highest concentration came from Pakistan (14.4%), and Bangladesh was second at 13.6%. The concentration of drivers coming from the U.S. and associated territories has also decreased from 9.1% in 2005 to 6.0% today."1

As the driver said in his interview, he was from 3 different countries before he immigrated to the United States. The general workforce of taxi drivers is usually a good reflection of the wave of immigration into this country. Historically, New York City taxi drivers have been one of the easiest first jobs for newly arrived immigrants in the country. In the 1980s, 62% of drivers were American born. In 2014, that number was only 4%.2

Interview 2 How long have you been driving for? Eleven years. What has been the biggest challenge you have seen for yellow cab drivers, or the biggest changes? Uber and Lyft So are they taking some of the work from you guys? Definitely And you don't want to drive for them? No I am fine with this, I have been doing this for a long time. Plus, I am on and off a lot of the time. I am not full time. You know, go to work whenever you want and take off whenever you want.

How do you feel about Uber and these other apps? If they get banned then we will be okay. So you just need Deblasio or someone to do something about it? Do something about it. Because they really messed up the whole business. Not only for us but for themselves too by putting in way too many drivers. Yes, the traffic and there is a lot more congestion. It's a big issue. That too, and plus just putting in too many drivers economically it just... I have friends who drive Uber too and they don't make enough money. They don't make enough money because there are just way too many drivers. If you have ten drivers and ten passengers and you will give everybody like one passenger. But if you only have five drivers, then everyone will end up getting two passengers and make more money. And that's why Uber is making more money because the more drivers they are putting in the better it is for them. But the drivers on the other hand are not making good money either. So they kind of messed it up us and at the same time kind of messed it up for themselves too.

I went back to the taxi garage in hopes of meeting some new faces with information on my research.

I arrived at 4 PM, when the drivers switch shifts.

This was the first driver that I met at the garage that day. I asked him about taking his photograph and under his breath he said "that's so boring." I assured him that his portrait was not boring and that people never highlight taxi drivers. He ended up letting me take his portrait and even pulled in his friend into the picture as well. He proceeded to show my brother and me upstairs to the mechanics' room where he was working. He had a problem with his car and was up there to fix it.

Technology Why did I call that Uber to go to my friends house that October evening? Was it cheaper? Safer? More convenient? Habitual? The answer is… I don’t know. I don’t remember how much it would have cost or how long a cab would have taken, but I still chose to go on my phone and tap away instead of walking down the block with my hand raised in the air. How would my ride with Maninder affect the three other open cabs that passed by me on the street while I was waiting for my Uber? Although it's challenging to quantify how much rideshare apps like Uber have affected yellow cabs, there is some statistical evidence that helps show the impact of rideshare apps on the taxi industry. These apps are still new to the market and have only been widely used since around 2015. It is clear that it has hit the business of the yellow cab hard because 2017 was the first year on record where more people used ride-share apps than yellow cabs.3 The percentage of rides from yellow cabs on the 15th of April 2015 were 85% and one year later it was already down to 65%.4 It was particularly devastating for people who bought taxi medallions. In 2014, a yellow cab medallion was worth over one million dollars. Today, a medallion can cost as low as 250,000 dollars.5

"But yellow cabs — which now number just 13,587 — have lost significant ground to a growing fleet of black cars summoned by ride-hailing apps with short, catchy names and loyal followings: Uber, Lyft, Via, Juno, Gett. The average number of daily taxi trips fell by more than 100,000 in November 2016 from the same month six years ago as these apps have taken off. Today, more than 60,000 black cars are for hire in the city. More than 46,000 are connected with Uber, though they may also work for other services too. And the competition is fierce."6

To drive in New York City one must have a taxi medallion. But in New York, there are only around 13,597 medallions.7 These medallions were a dream of many cab drivers as an investment to point them to the middle class. The taxi medallions value have been rising steadily over the years to over one million dollars in 2014 before rideshare apps started.8 Likely in part because of the high increase of Uber drivers and the decrease of demand to be a taxi driver, medallions are now down to $175,000.9 This has been devastating, especially to the individuals who have purchased medallions and had to take out huge debts to pay for them in hopes of a larger return. There have been several suicides this year alone because of drivers driven to desperation.10 Yellow cab drivers claim that these apps are very unfair because they do not have the same taxes and regulations as other drivers. Therefore, ride sharing apps charge a lower fare than taxis and pose a competition to them as well. However, the ride sharing apps claim that they are just providing an overall better ride share experience for less money and less hassle by hailing and paying within the app.11 An Oxford study found that cities that embrace Uber and other ride sharing apps actually added more jobs than were lost.12

Nonetheless, the overall effects of rideshare companies are still in progress. Some studies suggest that the impact is minimal, with only a ten percent decrease in the old style drivers, but a 50% increase in jobs.13 For example, in my third interview with a driver he said: "I don't really think that there are that big changes for driver. For driver there's less stress but a little bit less money, which is good both for customers and the drivers. But for the company [yellow cab medallion owners] they get hit because it's not that busy, and it's not the expensive price like it used to be."

"More than 60,000 black cars are tied to Uber, dwarfing yellow taxis, which are capped by city law at about 13,587. Last year, Uber trips eclipsed yellow taxi rides for the first time."14

Interview 3 What do you think has been the biggest change you've seen for yellow cab drivers? I don't really think that there are big changes for driver. For driver there's less stress, less stress, little bit less money, which is good for the both for customers and the drivers, but for the company they get hit because it's not that busy, not the expensive price like it used to be. Yeah, because some other guys that were saying that they make way less money. You have the choice if you want to switch you can switch and that is a good thing to just drive, it doesn't make any problem for us, that is the thing. You can make more money if you want to work, work very hard or work long hours. And the competition is good on a lot of points. The bad thing in uber is they should fix the numbers or the cars in the city. A lot of people complain about that and there is too many new drivers, and they don't know how to drive in the city. If too many new drivers then it's getting a little scary in the city, thats the bad thing in Uber. It's kind of good because you can make your own money. Yeah, but the taxi here, they get the, they used to charge us a lot of money and its very hard to get a car. And you get stressed out with the company and with the customers outside because you have to make a lot of money in order make your charges for the lease on the gas because it used to be very expensive but not anymore now. Oh, they lowered it because of the competition with uber or with yellow cab companies. Yes, because if you have many cars and don't have that many drivers...

So before, before they were charging so much t-Yes, before they were charging, and you know you have to take any car, any, even a very old car you have to, you have, we used to have a lot of time with the customer still because you know, when they are least expensive and the gas is least expensive and uh, you have to work hard to make money. So if somebody wants to go to Brooklyn or queens, especially rush hour time, it's going to hit your day because after 12 or one o'clock its dead. So you can't go there because you cant pick anybody else up? the lease is very expensive and the gas And a lot of people complain about that because they want to get what they want and you get stuck and you don't make that much money. But not anymore. Now it's good. The lease was down and you can't take anybody anywhere. You have more flexibility. A lot of people, they go in the other company and the position is very good and it's just very, a lot of points. But the bad thing is what I told you, too many new drivers, they don't know how to drive in the city. And uh, to too many cars in the city.

I took my camera around with me wherever I went, always snapping pictures.

These are photographs from random intersections, streets, and hangout spots of some drivers.

Religion The taxi community in New York City is very diverse in both nationality and religion. The taxi driver community has always reflected the wave of immigration into the United States. For example, the first taxi drivers were largely Irish Catholic. Then, in the 1920s, almost 60% of the drivers were Jewish. Now 60% to 70% of taxi drivers are from the Middle East, East Asia, and Africa. They are predominantly Muslim with a great number of them observant.15 A good thing about being a taxi driver is the flexibility. In my first interview with a driver, he said, "It’s a job that has so much flexibility that they just don’t wanna do anything else. [...] Especially if you’re Muslim driver. I’m a Muslim myself. If you have to pray five times a day, you have to take five breaks. It’s gonna be very hard for a company for example to give you five breaks a day." Taxi drivers can take breaks to pray and not be penalized by their boss. However, it is not always easy for drivers to plan where they are going to be. It is nearly impossible to park in New York City and many cabbies will end up being ticketed for stopping and praying.16

I am not asking you to stop riding Ubers. I am not asking you to only ride taxis. I am simply asking you to be more open minded about this city and the people that make it never sleep. The character of our city is special and we have to help preserve it. Imagine walking outside without seeing any dashes of yellow zooming by.

Something as simple as hailing a cab or requesting an Uber is connected to so many issues that go way beyond what meets the eye. It's important to think about the systems in which we participate. I think this awareness helps us to be more connected with those around us and more effective should we want these systems to change.

Foot Notes: 1–– 2014 Taxi Cab Factbook (New York, NY: Taxi & Limousine Commission, 2014), , http://

2— Matt Flegenheimer, "American-Born Cabbies Are a Vanishing Breed in New York," The New York Times, February 09, 2014, , accessed May 08, 2018, american-born-cabbies-a-vanishing-breed-in-city.html?rref=collection/byline/mattflegenheimer&action=click&contentCollection=undefined®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version =search&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection 3— Winnie Hu, "As Uber Woos More Drivers, Taxis Hit Back," The New York Times, March 18, 2017, , accessed May 08, 2018, rref=collection/byline/winniehu&action=click&contentCollection=undefined®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=search&c ontentPlacement=3&pgtype=collection. 4— Winnie Hu, "Taxi Medallions, Once a Safe Investment, Now Drag Owners Into Debt," The New York Times, September 10, 2017, , accessed May 08, 2018, nyregion/new-york-taxi-medallions-uber.html. 5— Winnie Hu, "As Uber Woos More Drivers, Taxis Hit Back," The New York Times, March 18, 2017, , accessed May 08, 2018, rref=collection/byline/winniehu&action=click&contentCollection=undefined®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=search&c ontentPlacement=3&pgtype=collection. 6— Winnie Hu, "Yellow Cab, Long a Fixture of City Life, Is for Many a Thing of the Past," The New York Times, January 15, 2017, , accessed May 08, 2018, yellow-cab-long-a-fixture-of-city-life-is-for-many-a-thing-of-the-past.html? hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=second-columnregion®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0.

Foot Notes Continued: 7— Danielle Furfaro, "Taxi Medallions Reach Lowest Value of 21st Century," New York Post, April 05, 2017, , accessed May 08, 2018, 8— Ibid 9 — Emma G. Fitzsimmons, "A Taxi Driver Took His Own Life. His Family Blames Uber's Influence.," The New York Times, May 01, 2018, , accessed May 08, 2018, nyregion/a-taxi-driver-took-his-own-life-his-family-blames-ubers-influence.html. 10— Ibid 11— Winnie Hu, "Taxi Medallions, Once a Safe Investment, Now Drag Owners Into Debt," The New York Times, September 10, 2017, , accessed May 08, 2018, nyregion/new-york-taxi-medallions-uber.html. 12— Adi Gaskell, "Study Explores The Impact Of Uber On The Taxi Industry," Forbes, January 27, 2017, , accessed May 08, 2018, 13— Thor Berger, Chinchih Chen, and Carl Benedikt Frey, "Drivers of Disruption? Estimating the Uber Effect," January 23, 2017, , Uber_Drivers_of_Disruption.pdf 14— Emma G. Fitzsimmons, "A Taxi Driver Took His Own Life. His Family Blames Uber's Influence.," The New York Times, May 01, 2018, , accessed May 08, 2018, nyregion/a-taxi-driver-took-his-own-life-his-family-blames-ubers-influence.html. 15— Graham Russell Hodges, Taxi! : A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver (New York, NY: New York University Press), 7. 16— Melkorka Licea, "Hundreds of Cabbies Ticketed While Praying in Mosque," New York Post, June 27, 2015, , accessed May 08, 2018, ue/.

Luc Detiger May, 2018 Thank You

The New York City Taxi Cab: a Journey Through Traffic's Changing Landscape  

By Luc Detiger

The New York City Taxi Cab: a Journey Through Traffic's Changing Landscape  

By Luc Detiger