Without its iconic yellow taxis, New York City … simply wouldn’t be New York City. When Uber arrived in 2011 with its easy to navigate app, taxi drivers lost business rapidly. The stiff competition with Uber along with the burdensome taxi medallion loans made it difficult for taxi drivers to earn a living. However, things have been looking up for yellow taxi drivers. In October 2021, they received a much-needed debt relief package, and on March 24, Uber announced it was partnering with existing taxi software like Curb and Creative Mobile Technologies and integrating them into its app.
Epicenter-NYC reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado spoke with Jaime Serrano, 57, a NYC taxi driver of 23 years who explained how Uber is changing his life again, but this time for the better.
The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Epicenter-NYC: How did you get your start as a taxi driver?
Serrano: I began working in a car service. During the five years I worked in a car service I began to realize that yellow taxi cabs make more money. In addition to that, being a yellow taxi cab driver and buying a medallion allowed me to get off work early and rent my taxi cab at night to be with my kids.
Epicenter-NYC: Did you buy a taxi medallion? How much was it?
Serrano: I bought my taxi medallion in 2003 for $345,000. I took out a loan to buy it and then had to pay around $2,500 a month. When I bought the medallion, I had priority working in airports and working in Manhattan, that was the difference between car service and a yellow taxi cab. There was more business for yellow taxi drivers. In the beginning, when I bought my medallion it was an investment and I saw it as my retirement. At that time I said ‘Okay, I bought my medallion for $345,000 and maybe I will retire in 25-30 years and maybe it’s worth twice as much.’ That was my plan. Currently, people are selling medallions on the street for $120,000 to $130,000, but I don’t know anyone who is willing to pay for them right now.
Epicenter-NYC: What is it like to be a taxi driver in NYC?
Serrano: A lot of people say it is a tough job because you find all kinds of people, some people are aggressive, some people are very nice. Fortunately, most people are good people. Every once in a while you meet someone aggressive or someone who is late and is being rude. But what can I do? I studied psychology, so I try to be patient with everyone.
Epicenter-NYC: How did the invention of Uber change things?
Serrano: Before Uber, I would make around 35-40 trips per day, it would depend on the trips, whether they were short or not. At the time, not including my expenses, I would make around $1,400 to $1,500 a week. The first pandemic taxi drivers had was Uber. When Uber started, out of the 40 trips we would do, we went down to 20 trips per day. The problem for those who owned a medallion was that we could not quit because of our loans. I was tied to the yellow taxi because I had a big loan and I could not leave even though the job was reduced completely.
Epicenter-NYC: Did you ever consider doing Uber?
Serrano: In 2017, I rented my taxi for 24 hours a day and I began doing Uber Black for a year. I bought a car to do Uber Black because I felt like I did not have enough business as a yellow cab driver during that time. However, considering what I was spending, I thought I was destroying the car and making trips that were not making enough money for the amount I was spending. The driver whom I rented my taxi to stopped working, so I had no choice but to keep the car I had bought and continue on with my yellow taxi cab because I was tied to the loan.
Epicenter-NYC: What was it like working during the pandemic?
Serrano: Business fell apart, but that was something everyone suffered from. I did not work for three to four months, then I returned to work to support the industry. I would leave at 7 a.m., and by noon I was lucky if I made four trips. At 1p.m. I would head home because there was simply no work. I was paying my loan payment up until the pandemic started. When the pandemic started and everything came to a standstill we stopped paying the loans for more than a year. But they were always sending me letters and statements. Then they called me and said that I had to make three payments of $750 to pardon what I had not paid. But after that was done, they called me to tell me that I had to start paying off my loan again. I talked to the person at the bank and told him that it was impossible, that I couldn’t afford that money because no money was being made. By then, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance was negotiating and they reached an agreement that our loans would be refinanced and we would pay a maximum of $1,211 a month.
Epicenter-NYC: What is it like being a taxi driver now?
Serrano: More people have returned to work and I am back to working 50 hours a week.
Epicenter-NYC: Have you noticed a change since yellow taxi cabs are being shown on the Uber app?
Serrano: Business has improved. Now, with Uber’s partnership, I have around 25-30 passengers per day. With Uber, a passenger can go to another state like New Jersey or Westchester. This has been a big change for taxi drivers because it has allowed us to work throughout — and even outside of — the five boroughs. Historically it was hard for taxi drivers to get passengers outside of Manhattan.
People also think that the yellow taxi cabs are more expensive than Ubers and car services, but that is not the case. They think that the yellow taxi cabs work in the city and with tourists so they are more expensive, but now the app is giving passengers a flat fare. So they are more confident taking the cabs.
Epicenter-NYC: Why should New Yorkers take traditional taxis as opposed to Ubers?
Serrano: If you look closely, the majority of yellow taxi drivers are more than 50 years old. They have a lot of experience. In order to get a license to operate a yellow taxi, we had to take a $1,500 test on our knowledge of the city and learn its routes. At that time there was no GPS. So a lot of taxi drivers have a lot of experience. I sometimes use the GPS to check out the traffic, but after 23 years I know where I’m going.
Continue supporting yellow cab drivers through the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. Check out its website to stay up to date on campaigns taxi drivers have underway.