BALTIMORE – On a recent bitter night, chilly commuters spilled from a MARC train and hurried through the marble waiting room of historic Penn Station. Outside, eight yellow taxicabs stood by the curb, their heaters humming in welcome.
Like cogs in a well-oiled machine, shivering commuters lined up on the right, purring taxicabs on the left, and cab starter Dawud Sharif got to work. Open a cab door, help a customer in. Next cab, please. Open a door, help a customer in. Next.
A former cabbie himself, Sharif has matched commuters to their rides at Penn Station’s taxi stand for three years. He started driving a cab in 1970s Baltimore, he said, a time when he only saw other Americans at the wheels of cabs.
More than half, or 57 percent, of the 1,603 people currently licensed to drive taxicabs in Baltimore City were born in Africa or South Asia, according to data from the Maryland Public Service Commission, which regulates cab driver licenses for the city, Hagerstown and Cumberland. In all other parts of Maryland, county governments, not the state commission, issue licenses to cab drivers.
The commission asks cabbie license applicants for information, including their country of birth. Although Joan Bauer, the commission’s transportation director, said the commission does not track such data regularly, the information can be used to calculate the number of immigrant drivers from year to year.
A Capital News Service analysis showed that 62 percent, or more than three out of every five, of licensed cabbies in Baltimore were born outside the U.S. — even though less than 5 percent of the city’s 636,000 residents are foreign-born, according to 2004 U.S. Census figures.
As regular cab riders have probably guessed, Baltimore cabbies are a multicultural lot. They come from at least 60 countries, with more than one out of three — 37 percent — born in Africa, and one out of five — nearly 20 percent — born in South Asia.
In fact, ask your cabbies where they’re from, and there’s a one-in-three chance they’ll say Nigeria or Pakistan.
One such cabbie, who gave his name as Mahmood Hussein, waited outside Penn Station for the next train. Originally from Gujrat, Pakistan, Hussein said becoming a cab driver was simple even if the work itself was physically and mentally fatiguing.
“If you have a license, you go to any small company, just tell them you need taxi,” Hussein said. “If you don’t have any money in your pocket, you can start working easily.”
Applicants for taxicab driver licenses must complete an eight-hour course in map reading and geography, pass a criminal background check and provide the state commission with driving records, Bauer said. Anyone born outside the U.S. must show valid authorization to work.
“It’s not like it’s a walk-in proposition,” Bauer said.
Inside Penn Station, where he had taken refuge from the cold with two other Indian-born cabbie friends, Karnail Singh Multani explained in Hindi that he drove a cab because, slipping into mostly English, he had a “language ki problem.”
Many immigrants drive cabs because the job requires basic yet universal skills like knowing how to drive and speaking rudimentary English, said Dwight Kines, general manager of the taxi division of Yellow Transportation, owner of Baltimore’s two largest Checker Cab and Yellow Cab associations.
Immigrants choose to drive taxis at a higher rate than most other jobs, said Steven Camarota, director of research at the nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies. Nationally, more than a third of all cab drivers and chauffeurs are immigrants, compared to 15 percent in the general work force, he said.
But the percentage of immigrants among cab drivers in Baltimore far outstrips this national rate. Maryland’s immigrant population has increased by more than half in the last five years, far above the national average increase of 17 percent, according to a report released by Camarota this month. Of the state’s 5.5 million residents, 13 percent were born outside the U.S., again above the national average.
Yet driving a taxicab is usually not the first job sought by recent immigrants because it requires familiarity with an area, Camarota said. Recent immigrants are more likely to seek jobs in agriculture, construction or cleaning and maintenance, he said.
Afolabi Omopariola, who left Nigeria to attend college in the U.S. 25 years ago, stopped to speak in a bustling room with a checkered vinyl floor at the headquarters of Yellow Transportation. Around him, more than a dozen drivers shuffled in line to file billing vouchers or called out to each other in their native languages.
He gravitated toward cab-driving as a college student because it allowed him a flexible work schedule, Omopariola said. College didn’t stick, but the cab did.
“You’re your own boss, more or less,” Omopariola said, echoing what many other cabbies cited as their biggest reason for staying on the job.
“People like me, they just like the convenience,” he said. “It’s not that you’re lazy. You’re working very hard.”
Part of the immigrant attraction to taxicabs is that the longer drivers work, the more money they can make, industry regulars said.
“It’s a cash business. There’s nothing stopping you from working seven days a week,” said Harold Morgan, director for research and education at the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, a Washington-based trade association. “If you were very industrious and wanted to quickly save a lot of cash you can do that. You don’t have to wait two weeks for a paycheck.”
Taxicab drivers and chauffeurs in Baltimore make $21,620 a year on average, according to 2004 U.S. Department of Labor figures. Zaheer Baber, a cabbie from Pakistan’s Azad Kashmir region, said he pays Checker Cab $500 a week for his taxi lease, maintenance and dispatch service. Whatever he makes in fares and tips above that — minus gas money — he keeps.
Bauer said that in the 15 years she’s been with the commission, she has noticed an increase in drivers of African and South Asian origin.
“We do require all our driver applicants to come for personal interviews, so we see them on a daily basis,” Bauer said. “You do get a feel for that that way.” But she added she didn’t know why certain groups outnumbered others.
Kines said he doesn’t focus on where his associations’ drivers come from.
“I don’t pay attention to that. I don’t care,” he said.
But cabbies themselves expressed surprise at the numbers. Washington-born Cleveland Tillman, who has seen immigrant drivers ebb and flow into Baltimore over his 30 years as a cabbie, rattled off a decade-by-decade list.
In the late ’70s, there were a lot of Nigerians and other Africans, Tillman said. In the early ’80s, “a whole lot” of Iranian and Iraqi cabbies came in; in the early ’90s, there were the Russians, some Pakistanis and some Somalians. The Indians came in the mid-’90s, “and they’re the ones who are still around,” Tillman said.
Current data shows that Baltimore’s 129 Indian-born drivers actually make up the fourth-largest national group — much to Tillman’s surprise.
“Is that right?” Tillman asked.
Tillman’s historical account — echoed by several regulars — could not be checked against Public Service Commission records because the data provided by the commission only included details on currently licensed drivers.
Current data shows that American-born drivers form the largest group — about two in every five — from a single country, followed by those born in Nigeria, Pakistan, India, Ethiopia and Somalia.
Some immigrant drivers may come and go because cab-driving can be “a stepping-stone,” said Michael Fagbemi, a Nigerian-born cabbie who hopes to own his own car dealership one day. “After some time, enough money, they can go into another business that’s more lucrative.”
Other foreign-born drivers said they’ve stuck around for the same reason as Tillman.
“Cabs get into your system. The freedom of being your own boss, the people you meet, the places you go,” Tillman said. “It’s a decent living.” -30- CNS-12-22-05