Fares aren't fair for drivers in the Big Apple, says Philip Thornton. A new book paints a worrying picture

Travellers to New York - or simply fans of TV shows such as Sex and the City - will be well aware of the iconic role yellow cabs play in the daily life of the world's most vibrant city.

A new book by Biju Mathew, a professor of business who became deeply involved with a labour dispute brought by New York taxi drivers, shows that the people who drive yellow cabs tend to earn close to the minimum wage, come from the bottom of America's social spectrum, and have to drive vehicles that were not even designed as taxis. They make up a mini-United-Nations within the giant melting pot that is New York City. In a survey nine out of 10 were found to be immigrants from a total of 84 countries, with nearly half coming from the Indian subcontinent.

Their passengers, though, are a different kettle of fish - Manhattanites going to and from their homes, offices, restaurants, theatres and stores.

There's no surprise, then, that New York's media are full of allegations of foreigners befuddled with the English language, unable to locate landmark buildings and prone to overcharging their passengers. However, the reality is that more than a third of drivers are university graduates.

Perhaps the prime cause of their problems is the bizarre and complex economic system that governs the New York's cab network. While London cabbies must go through a gruelling memory test of every street in the capital - The Knowledge - the must-have for New York cabs is one of the 12,200 medallion badges issued by the city council. These medallions have become financial instruments. At the latest auction the top price paid for one was $712,101. Only 29 per cent of medallions are owned by independent drivers; 54 per cent are owned by leasing agents, and 17 per cent are owned by fleets.

Given the cost, it is unsurprising that new immigrant drivers end up leasing a vehicle for as short a period as a night. A driver might pay $110 to rent the car for a day plus $20 for petrol, meaning he or she will have to take $130 in fares to break even.

As one driver told Professor Mathew: "If in my first hour of driving, I get a passenger who takes me to the Bronx, I know I'm screwed. I know that I will have $15 to show for my first two hours." So garage owners knew they will get their $110 come rain, shine, snowfall or gridlock, while the driver has to rely on his or her guile and cunning.

It hasn't always been so exploitative. Until 1979 drivers were guaranteed a minimum wage plus 40 per cent of all fare-income above a certain level. But with medallion prices soaring, the fleets pushed for a leasing system.

Prof Mathew writes: "Leasing signified in many ways the core of neo-liberal economic practice and its logic of shifting risk downward to those that have the least power."

Against that background it was inevitable that drivers would eventually rebel. A fledgling organisation, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, that fought three battles - one lost and two won - against the city, and particularly against Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg.

In 1998 it brought all 24,000 drivers out in an unsuccessful protest at a new rulebook for drivers it said would allow the police to persecute drivers. Three years later, in the wake of September 11, it successfully campaigned for drivers to be included in disaster relief that was only going to owners. Three years on it secured a deal on prices that raised fares by 26 per cent but leases by just eight per cent - a 70-30 split in favour of drivers. "It was the first successful mobilisation against the post-9/11 American state and it was planned and executed by an almost entirely immigrant workforce union," Prof Mathew says.

After all that, NYC cabbies still get to drive some of the most unsuitable taxis in the modern world. The fleet's current workhorse is an extra-long version of the Ford Crown Victoria. As Bill Plumb, a veteran cab designer who would prefer to see sports utility vehicles (SUV) on city streets, told the New York Metro: "It is not designed as a taxi - it is a real road hog. You don't need that heavy V8 engine, it uses too much fuel. And the car is very inefficient in terms of passenger space."

But hope is at hand, at least in terms of vehicle choice. Environmentalists want the city to allow hybrid SUVs - using both petrol and electricity- that can do double the mileage.

Drivers may be in line for a break, too. The New York Times has called for all cabs to be individually owned - a radical move that would bring New York closer to London. But, whatever happens, let's hope the future's bright - and yellow.

'Cabs and Capitalism in New York City' by Biju Mathew is published by The New Press (£14.30)

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