NYC Owns This Medallion Mess

Last Friday, New York City taxi medallions once valued near $1 million were sold for approximately a quarter of that value. Many cab drivers who worked for decades to save enough money to own one of these medallions, or lease them, are now facing financial ruin. Tragically, six of these drivers saw no way out of their perilous situations and took their own lives. 

This is a disaster. And it is one that was created by the negligence of New York City leaders. They own this mess and need to do something to make it right. 

The medallion system was implemented in 1937. A goal at the time was likely more about making money for the city and less about regulating the industry so that passengers were moved safely around the city. Yet, the medallion system for all its flaws allowed the city to control the number of cabs on the streets, make sure that cars were safe and tweak rules to deal with emerging problems, such as pollution or access for disabled people. 

With the rise of ridesharing, the industry was quickly turned upside down. This is natural in any economy and, in many ways, it is unpreventable. But one of government’s primary roles is to protect people when economic disruption happens; to make sure there is a social safety net. 

The city government has failed to do this—first, by not regulating Uber and Lyft when they arrived in New York City when Michael Bloomberg was mayor; and subsequently by failing to act as the situation deteriorated. We have now reached a point where lives have been ruined and the options available to the city to help are limited. 

The cab drivers are calling for ridesharing services to be regulated like taxis. This could work, but it depends on city leaders to craft legislation that will likely have loopholes an UberXL could drive through. 

A more logical option would be to provide financial support to cab drivers under water on medallions, but this option is also fraught with pitfalls. Who is eligible? How much does each eligible driver get? And there is also the likely backlash from voters about why taxpayer money is being used to help some people in financial peril, but not others who may have suffered similar financial losses.  

Both options are bad. But they are better than doing nothing and abandoning a tight-knit community of New Yorkers to hopelessness and despair. 

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