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Taxicab Medallion Systems: Time for a Change

In most major American cities, the taxi industry is heavily regulated. City officials treat taxi companies effectively as public utilities, tightly controlling every aspect of their operations, from the licensing of drivers to the fares they may charge. Many cities, including New York, Boston, and Chicago, operate so-called medallion systems whereby cities set a maximum cap on the number of cabs that can operate in the city.

How Does a Medallion System Work?

The basic element of a medallion system is the taxi medallion itself, a small metal plaque that is affixed to a vehicle. [1] Without one of these medallions, it is illegal to operate a taxi in cities with medallion systems. The number of medallions, and thus the number of taxis, is tightly controlled and determined by political rather than market forces. It usually changes only when regulatory bodies decide to issue new medallions.

A medallion is not a license to drive a taxi; it is a license to operate one, and this is a critical distinction. Few medallion holders actually drive taxis. Rather, holders may possess significant numbers of medallions and operate fleets of taxis by leasing those medallions to drivers by the shift. These leasing fees become the primary revenue stream for the medallion holder. Whether a driver has a good shift or a bad shift, he still owes the lease fee. Effectively, medallion holders are guaranteed profits while bearing little or almost none of the actual costs or risks (which can be considerable) that are associated with driving a taxi.

One Taxi Driver's Fight to Save His Medallion and His Family's Future

NEW YORK—The night was teeming with city noises: the intermittent blasts of hip-hop from passing cars, the jubilant howls of young drunkards. But it was dim and quiet inside Jaswinder Singh’s taxi, save for the sound of his children talking to him through FaceTime. Although they live in the same house in Long Island, he hasn’t seen his children in three days.

Seven days a week, Singh drives his yellow taxi from 2:30 in the afternoon until past 11 at night. By the time he gets home from the city, it is 2 a.m. Sometimes he doesn’t make it home until 5 in the morning. His seamed face and gray beard make him look older than his 45 years.

When Singh wakes up his three children are often already at school. His wife hands him his lunch bag, stuffed with painkillers and a vegan meal, and off he goes again.

To stave off loneliness, Singh steals family moments during bathroom breaks or as he waits for passengers at John F. Kennedy International Airport.