As a ride-share app driver, Basel M. has to navigate traffic jams, angry drivers, and the ever-tightening and hypercompetitive market for rideshare and taxi drivers in New York City. He’s been a cab driver since 2018 and has weathered the pandemic downturn, watched his coworkers fall into financial ruin during the medallion crash, and fought for meager protections from the City government. Despite the daily hardship of being a rideshare driver, there is one little-known agency that causes him the most problems: the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission police.
This past April, Basel brought his car in for inspection as required by the TLC to renew his license, which cost him $625. TLC drivers are given four chances to pass, and if they fail their first inspection, they have to pay a $75 reinspection fee regardless of whether their car passes or fails reinspection. At his vehicle inspection, Basel failed and received an additional $50 fine for having his personal belongings on the front passenger seat. When he returned, he failed again and received yet another fine for having an improperly secured Covid-19 partition.
“They [TLC] treat us as if we are scumbags, that we are worth nothing, ” said Basel, who asked to be referred to by his first name only, to avoid retaliation. “Why do we have double standards? If the DMV ticket for a U-turn, let’s say, is $110- $150, why is the TLC ticket $400?”
Data exclusively obtained by Documented shows fines from the TLC levied against drivers rose 446 percent from 2017 to the height of the pandemic in 2020. During a time when cab and rideshare drivers have been battered financially by the Covid downturn in ridership and the medallion crash, the TLC has ramped up enforcement on traffic violations such as running a stop sign or a red light costing drivers a total of $2.3 million in 2021 alone.
In data obtained through Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests made to the TLC, Documented has learned that the average fines issued to TLC licensed drivers has increased by 285.83 percent between 2017 and 2021, a time when the average number of drivers on the road plunged by 26.23 percent during the same period.
In 2017, there was an average of 90,113 licensed TLC drivers in New York and the agency issued $606,850 in fines. In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, there were only 59,336 drivers on the road but the fines increased to $2,176,173 total and continued to increase in 2021 to $2,341,408 and 66,480 drivers. In just four years, the average fine per driver increased from about $7 to roughly $37.
Although fines have increased, ridership has plummeted. At its peak in 2017, there were 700,000 TLC licensed rides in the city. By 2020, there were only 150,000 rides, yet fines continued to increase.
Yellow and green cab owners are also feeling squeezed by the fines.
Although the TLC had cut back the number of fines issued to yellow and green cab owners over the pandemic — from $1.3 million in 2017 down to $540,000 in 2021 — the average fine went up from $127 per charge in 2017 to $189 per charge in 2021. That’s a nearly 50 percent increase since 2017. Drivers and owners say at a time of extreme economic strife in their industry, the fines represent another way the City continues to profit off of drivers.
“[Cab drivers] are not treated with respect,” said Bhairavi Desai, President of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. “They are nickeled and dimed with a lot of petty enforcement which just feels like petty harassment. All of it comes at a cost to drivers.”
Civilian drivers who get caught on a red light camera have to pay a $50 fine. TLC licensed drivers are required to pay a $300 fine, plus three points for the same violation. A stop sign violation can cost as much as $400, whereas a civilian driver would pay $150. Cab drivers and cab owners say they feel unduly burdened by TLC fines and argue that many of them are redundant. Drivers can be issued multiple fines for the same violation by the NYPD and the TLC, whose fines are often greater.
Basel says that many drivers don’t bother to fight the tickets out of fear of losing their license.
“100 percent of the drivers will always take the settlement because if you rack up 6 points, you are out of business,” he said. “Of course, you never win at the TLC court, it’s impossible for you to win.”
In 2018, Basel formed groups on Facebook and WhatsApp to share information with other drivers. The conversations often revolve around the fines. In 2020, during the height of the defund the police movement, Basel started a petition calling for the dismantling of the TLC police for its exploitation of drivers. The petition gained 1,470 signatures. His motivation stems from the constant harassment he felt from the TLC.
Several other TLC licensed drivers Documented spoke to, both app drivers and yellow cab drivers, have claimed the same thing; as the city-spawned medallion crisis forced many yellow cab owners into a cycle of unpayable debt, the excessive TLC fines pushed them further away from financial solvency.
Mohamed Mannan, who has driven a yellow cab since he first arrived in New York from his native Bangladesh in 2005, took out a loan in 2013 so he could purchase his own taxi medallion for $850,000. Today, like many cab drivers who saw their life savings evaporate due to the medallion crisis, his medallion is now worth only $100,000 and he still has a $200,000 debt hanging over his head. The pandemic, as well as competition from apps like Uber and Lyft, only made it harder to eke out a living.
In February, Mannan says he received a $400 ticket from a TLC officer for running a red light, even though he insists he didn’t. The fine also came with three points on his taxi license. He was given a choice; he could settle out of TLC court or he could choose to fight it. Being a veteran driver, he knew that was not much of a choice at all.
“If you are guilty and take a settlement you pay less money and fewer points. If you go to court and are found guilty you pay more money and more points.”
As far as Mannan is concerned, the daily threat of Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) enforcement is one of the most aggravating parts of the job.
“Many times, the TLC police stop you and check up on what’s going on,” he said. “They check your license, your plate number, your lights and sometimes they give you a hard time.”
According to Bernadette Jentsch, Supervising Attorney with the Mobilization for Justice, Inc. which does pro bono work for cab drivers facing fines, many cab drivers are not aware that they do not even have to pay the fines in the first place if they choose to settle. Because of the lack of awareness of what their rights are, many drivers choose to pay the ticket outright without a fight.
“If you’re the owner and driver, they seem to drop the TLC ticket if you show them a receipt that you paid the DOT,” she said. “If you’re just the driver and don’t know any better you might just pay that thing which sucks.”
Prior to the pandemic, attorneys with Mobilization for Justice would be on-site at the TLC court in Long Island City but now have been working remotely, leaving many cab drivers forced to navigate the bureaucracy of the TLC alone.
The TLC told Documented it could do a better job educating drivers about their rights, but the agency insists that its pervasive enforcement is aimed at preventing traffic accidents.
“Safety is the top priority for TLC, and we reject the false choice between preventing traffic violence — the victims of which are disproportionately lower income and people of color — and financially burdening hardworking drivers,” said a Spokesperson for the TLC. “We have focused on the most dangerous safety violations in an effort to ensure that drivers operate their vehicles safely for the sake of themselves, their passengers, and all New Yorkers.”
Bhairavi Desai, Present of NYTWA, doesn’t buy that the TLC is only focused on the most dangerous safety violations.
“There should be a cap on the amount of fines that are proportional to what drivers’ earned, because right now if you get pulled over you can end up losing your day’s earnings to one ticket,” she said. “Sometimes a whole week of earnings for one ticket which feels like a debtor’s prison. You work 60 hours just to pay off a summons. And not 60 hours on any job, but a back-breaking and dangerous job.”
For Mohamed Mannan, the interactions he has had with the TLC left him feeling dehumanized.
“TLC thinks that we are not human beings, ” he says. “Whatever [TLC] wants to do they do. Nobody is nice to us.”