Behind the Wheel, Chasing the American Dream

Kamgen taking a break from a shift in his cab. (Anneke Ball/Columbia University)

Joseph Kamgen sits behind the wheel of a yellow cab, moonlighting 12-hour-shifts to make a few hundred dollars per week. The 25-year-old has big dreams in the finance world, having moved from the Ivory Coast to New York City in 2011 where his parents and two siblings awaited him.

“This is the best place to be if you understand what it means to succeed,” said Kamgen. “If you are lazy, you will fall behind.”

Immigrants just like Kamgen make up more than 90% of the Taxi and Limousine Commission’s (TLC) work force. Taxi driving has traditionally been an occupation for immigrant groups. Of the roughly 40,000 yellow taxi drivers in the City, only 9% were born in the United States, according to the agency’s records.

New York’s drivers represent 167 countries from around the world. Source: TLC Licensing data. 2015 Medallion Taxi (Yellow), SHL and FHV trip-sheet data.

When he moved the U.S., Kamgen first worked as a security guard in New Jersey. He enrolled at Rutgers Business School, but found that the night shifts for guard duty were difficult. Instead, Kamgen began driving cabs because it would allow him a more flexible schedule.

Yellow-cab drivers can negotiate terms of their shifts with fleet owners. Kamgen chose two days per week when he didn’t have class, with 12-hour shifts. Their shifts either start early morning or evening.

After graduating in 2015, Kamgen was hired as an accountant at Pinnacle Foods , a packaged-food company in New Jersey. He makes $35 an hour in that job, but he decided to add to his income with weekend cab shifts.

“If I really need some cash and a couple of hundred dollars more, I’ll work all weekend,” he said. Sometimes when he works all day Saturday, he takes Sundays off.

Kamgen aims to bring in around $250 for a 12-hour cab shift, but after cab-rental, gas and other charges, he usually nets around $100 in profit. According to the TLC, Saturday nights tend to be one of the more lucrative shifts.

Kamgen said he is not making as much as he used to back in 2011. “Now it’s not like before because of competition from Uber and Lyft,” he said. “It has really affected my business.”

Hotels, he said, used to be great for picking up customers in the city, but now he spends hours waiting outside seeing passengers request rides through their phones.

Kamgen won’t join the ride-hailing movement, because he doesn’t plan to remain in the transportation business for long. Cab driving helped him get through college, but he hopes to become an even more successful accountant.