For 34 years I drove a taxi on the streets of Philadelphia, leasing one of the city’s 1,600 medallions — a number relatively unchanged for many, many years. Throughout those several decades, I have encountered every facet of the taxi industry, from the taxi associations and regulatory bodies to medallion owners and other drivers, watching the industry evolve from the driver’s seat.
I started in 1982, due to a fondness for people and driving. I enjoyed the responsibility that came with each ride and took the opportunity to learn from every stranger I encountered. For many years, I was able to earn a living and support my family through many life transitions.
Back then, as a medallion leaser, the system functioned as a partnership between the owner and me. I had a personal relationship with the medallion owner and would pick up shifts when they were available. Medallion owners looked on their leased drivers as a reflection of themselves, determined to uphold the integrity of the taxi industry in Philadelphia even when they weren’t driving. In fact, medallion leases were often revoked for less than stellar driving and service.
But over the years, as medallions became more and more expensive, I noticed the industry began to shift, making it difficult for drivers to buy into a system driven by their hard work.
Medallion owners began leasing that small piece of metal that sits on the hood of a car out to drivers like me for more and more money. Despite owning a vehicle, meter, radio, light, and equipment, I still spent $375 a week — more than $750 by the end — for medallion-related fees. I was forced to drive more than five days a week just to begin to turn over a $400 profit after maintenance and association fees. Oftentimes, the majority of drivers’ earnings fell into the hands of medallion owners, but we had no other choice.
The results of this system weren’t pretty. I watched fellow drivers manipulate passengers for higher fares. And any sense of camaraderie and safety went out the window. At some point, it stopped being about serving customers altogether.
About 10 years ago, the system hit an all-time low. Paying for a medallion lease, yet still providing for their families, became very difficult, and many drivers responded by forgoing medallion leases to operate illegally without certifications. As a driver who rightfully leased a medallion, it seemed there was little attempt to crack down on the bad actors, only perpetuating a damaged system.
I finally called it quits after a St. Patrick’s Day when a friend made more than four times what I had earned by partnering with Uber. I joined the platform immediately. Uber gave me the opportunity to continue my life’s work and passion, while finally being free of the medallion lease that I was burdened by for decades.
Now, as an Uber partner, I have more earning opportunity and I use my own personal vehicle to drive at my convenience. Driving without leasing fees, I am able to supplement my fixed income with less commitment and on my own schedule. Gone are the days when I would have to relentlessly drive more than 70 hours per week to pay my lease, with little left for me and family. With Uber, I control my profits and can drive toward financial freedom.
Since UberX entered the Philadelphia market, the city’s transportation industry has undergone a noticeable improvement. For the first time in many decades, drivers again have choices when it comes to earning a living. That choice has enabled me to become a small-business owner, take charge of my future, and make a better life for me and my family.
Philadelphia’s leaders should realize that drivers deserve better than a broken taxi medallion system. They should embrace the competition that Uber and similar companies provide and not put obstacles in the way of drivers who have a new world of options.
Thomas Watson is a former taxi driver and Philadelphia resident. firstname.lastname@example.org