Big wheels keep on turning

How the taxi industry drives the American dream

by Anneke Ball and Stevie Hertz

Mohamed Soliman was born in Egypt and moved to New York 20 years ago. Like many drivers for hire, it’s only one of his many jobs: Soliman also runs his own textile business and is a martial arts trainer. (Stevie Hertz/Columbia University)

The iconic taxi industry in New York City is staffed almost entirely by immigrants — both in the cars and those that keep them running. Today, 96% of the people driving yellow taxis were born elsewhere. With drivers coming from over 167 countries, taxis, Ubers, Lyfts and Vias have become the latest American melting pot.

Taxi driving was not always an immigrant industry. In 1980, 62% of taxi and hired drivers in the city were born in America. A decade later in 1990, it was 36%, and by 2000, 16%.

Today, drivers come from a variety of countries: 24% of yellow cab drivers were born in Bangladesh, while 10% of those driving with ride hailing apps were from the Dominican Republic.

New York City drivers represent 167 countries from around the world. (Anneke Ball/Columbia University)

Yet while the ethnic diversity of the industry is widening, but the industry remains to be male-dominated. Only 1% of taxi drivers are female, and 2% of ride-hailing app drivers are female. We have yet to find one in this city of eight million people.

We look behind the wheel to the individuals driving the city, their stories and how they ended up here. We spoke to those who work with them, about life in such a diverse industry and how they bridge the communication gap.

We spoke to taxi drivers, Ubers, Lyfts, dispatchers, mechanics, and store owners in the industry. The common variable we found was the American dream.

Tourists take pictures in front of the Grand Central Station taxi stand. (Stevie Hertz/Columbia University)

Andrew Vollo has been teaching hopeful taxi drivers for over 30 years. Drivers across the industry learn city geography, rules and customer service in a three-day course.

Since 2016, cabbies no longer had to pass an English language exam in order to qualify for a taxi license. Now, they can take the test in six different languages, from Spanish to Urdu. As barriers to entry fall away, Vollo’s class comes from a widening pool. The students remain hopeful, even when Vollo thinks otherwise.

“This job allows many new immigrants to take a step up the American ladder, the American Dream.” — Andrew Vollo

Carlos Diaz has done almost everything in the taxi industry. He’s worked as a driver, mechanic and now a dispatcher. For him, “it’s part of my life, the taxi.” Dealing with a number of drivers, diversity can pose a problem when there are language and cultural barriers. But in a job with 12-hour shifts and little daily change, an international pool of drivers can provide variety.

“It’s part of my life, the taxi.”- Carlos Diaz

Hector Gonzalez is one of the more than 650,000 Dominicans that have migrated to New York in search of opportunities and economic stability. But, many are still struggling to seize that New York City dream.

Gonzalez immigrated from the Dominican Republic to New York in 1989. He has been working as a manager for the Downtown Tire Shop in Manhattan for 22 years. He says his business has been affected by the rise of ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft, as his primary customers are cab drivers.

He proudly says “America is the best country in the world”, and despite slow business days, he remains hopeful that clients will keep coming to his store. He has never regretted coming to America in search of a better life.

Gonzalez’s office in the Downtown Tire Shop in Manhattan. (Anneke Ball/Columbia University)

The red, white and blue for Gonzalez doesn’t only stand for the DR, but for the US. His little corner is decorated with flags, pins, pictures of President Obama and a postcard of the Statue of Liberty.

Thierry Ouattara immigrated from Burkina Faso with his wife and two small boys in 2012. He has a degree in Criminal Justice from Monroe College and owns a small car dealership in the City. For now, he works part-time as an Uber driver while his wife finds a stable job.

“Uber only gives me money for rent… I don’t want to stay here,” Ouattara says. “I’m getting tired, as soon as she starts working I’ll stop doing it.”

Sergio Lomez is out of place outside the Lyft office in Long Island City, Queens. He just failed to become a Lyft driver because his car was two years too old. He thinks through his next steps. The 43 year old normally works in catering but work has been slow this season and he was hoping to pick up some extra cash quickly and without too much hassle.

In Ecuador, he worked as a photographer and — briefly — a model. But for now, Gomez simply says that “I’m not sure what I’m going to do.”

“I’m not sure what I’m going to do.” — Sergio Lomez