ARLINGTON — Before dawn on a recent Tuesday, Mike Garvey swung his taxi onto Bates Road to pick up his first passenger of the day. His left hand gripped the wheel as a ponytailed man walked out with a briefcase.
“Early flight?” Garvey asked.
“Yeah,” he answered. “California.”
Garvey, 62, and a longtime cabbie, has come to expect conversations like these at 4 a.m., when customers begin to filter through his Toyota Camry for a day of rides to Logan Airport or Fenway or Wakefield. He did not always start his shifts so early, nor work such long days. But when the taxi industry fell into disrepair, Garvey’s eight-hour shifts turned into 12. Passengers switched to Uber. Cab stands where he could pick up rides mostly disappeared.
“It’s not like it used to be,” Garvey said. “You got to get up early. You have to drive all day. The jobs don’t come to you.”
Indeed they don’t.
The rise of ride-hailing and the COVID-19 pandemic dealt a one-two punch to cabs, forcing out throngs of drivers and pushing dispatch services to bankruptcy. In Massachusetts, the number of cabbies has fallen dramatically since Uber launched in 2009. And the value of taxi licenses — also called medallions — has cratered, from $750,000 in 2014 to around $20,000 today.
Only 1,080 of the 1,825 available in Boston were in use this January, according to police department figures.
And yet the story about Boston’s cabs is not all doom and gloom.
In fact, by many measures, taxis are once again on the upswing, with evidence emerging that drivers can withstand competition from industry giants. Interviews with a dozen cabbies and dispatchers reveal that transportation companies are facing more demand than they can meet. Many customers are drifting from ride-hailing due to safety concerns and rising costs, said Alfred LaGasse, CEO of The Transportation Alliance, a trade association for private transportation companies.
Ride-hailing services provided 91.9 million trips in Massachusetts in 2019 and just 39.1 million in 2021.
In this market, remaining drivers said, good money can no longer be found picking people up on the street or outside the bars after last call. Instead, their incomes lie in unexpected corners: medical transport, lucrative private contracts, and scheduled trips to the airport, rather than in the taxi pools of yore.
Those are profitable footholds Uber and Lyft have yet to disrupt, said Edward G. Rogoff, a professor at Long Island University Brooklyn who long studied the industry.
“A century after its birth, the taxi industry is entering the next generation of variability, of evolution,” he added. “It’s turning into a business that’s finding all these niches.”
Just one day in Garvey’s cab serves as evidence of a profession fighting to survive, years after many were ringing its death knell.
4:30 a.m.: The airport
The alarm rings at 3 a.m. in his Melrose apartment, prompting Garvey to load a Newman’s K-cup into his coffeemaker. His first two jobs are usually scheduled airport runs, which he lines up a day before with the dispatchers at Green Cab and Yellow Cab of Somerville.
It’s a privilege for which Garvey pays $100 a week, but it’s worth the price. If all goes to plan, he’ll make around $60 before the sun rises over the Prudential Building. But if he calls too late, another cabbie has already snatched up the morning rides.
“People jump on those jobs like that,” Garvey said, snapping his fingers.
Before ride-hailing, the airport used to be easy money for cabbies. Thousands of people arrive daily looking to reach hotels in the Back Bay or homes as far as Worcester. The taxi pool was just a 15-minute wait, sometimes less.
Now independent drivers still flock to the airport, said Amarpreet Singh, a Boston cabbie who bought his medallion in 2008. But because ride-hailing services have snatched the bulk of business, the wait for willing cab passengers in the taxi parking lot can last up to three hours. Customers who do prefer a cab often live nearby — in South Boston or Beacon Hill, for example — and are looking to avoid expensive airport surcharges on the apps.
“In the end, it could be just $20 or $30 in your pocket,” said Singh, 36.
That’s why some cabbies turn to dispatchers. Green Cab drivers, including Garvey, only venture to Logan when they know a job is waiting. Customers call the service, or use an Uber-like app, and dispatchers distribute jobs through a sleek tablet fastened to drivers’ cars. It functions as both the meter and a method of communication, pinging with orders every few minutes.
There’s a dispatch radio, too, like in the old days, but Garvey pays it little attention.
6:30 a.m.: The regulars
In the driver’s seat, Garvey has found friends: an Everett resident he drives to a North End methadone clinic, an elderly woman with church plans, and a man with an intellectual disability and rapport with Garvey.
“Did you make your bed today?” the cabbie asks him every day.
Those rides take Garvey through the second part of his morning, as the city wakes up to another workday. But most of the regulars do not pay him directly. Instead, their rides are subsidized through a web of insurance and nonprofit programs that have held steadfast — and even grown — as Uber ate up taxis’ conventional customers.
This sort of work has become a bedrock of the cab business, said Jo-Anne Thompson, president of Tommy’s Taxis in Framingham. Dispatchers like her have sought out contracts to transport elderly people to the grocery store and social gatherings, patients to kidney dialysis and physical therapy.
“We are relying more on contract work,” she said. “And there’s more of it as the population ages.”
Earlier in the pandemic, Cheryl Horan, vice president of Green Cab, also capitalized on offers from health agencies to ferry homeless people to quarantine as far away as Northampton — risky rides that came with health hazards, but also a $300 to $400 payment from the state. Transportation to vaccination appointments provided another line of business.
Now, Horan leans on a partnership with the state Medicaid program, MassHealth, which provided 2.9 million rides to patients in 2022. Usage slumped slightly in 2020, but came back with a force. Almost 500,000 more trips subsidized by MassHealth were taken in fiscal year 2022 than in fiscal year 2018.
And that kind of business is here to stay. In November, 42 organizations received a total of $4.5 million in grants from MassDevelopment to continue enlisting taxis. Women’s Lunch Place, for example, used $65,685 to provide rides to mothers in the shelter looking for permanent housing, said executive director Jennifer Hanlon Wigon. With $30,000, Somerville-Cambridge Elder Care Services allows members five free round-trips each month with Green Cab.
Money from those rides does not come to Garvey immediately. He keeps a white tear-away pad of vouchers in the car to document each fare and cashes them every Monday. The money lands in his bank account a month later.
He doesn’t mind.
“My rides are covered,” said one loyal passenger, who frequently gossips with Garvey. “But I should give you money for the back-seat therapy.”
11:00 a.m.: The wandering
By late morning, Garvey had his eyes glued to the tablet.
He had a few free hours to troll for spontaneous rides, hoping to find enough passengers to hit his daily goal of $300. Even after gas — Garvey drives a hybrid that goes 550 miles on a full tank — and $1,200 a month in car and insurance payments, that’s enough to get him by.
The iCabbi software on the tablet separates Greater Boston into sections: Zone 13 is Central Square in Cambridge, 39 is Charlestown, and so on. Beside each zone, it displays the number of Green Cab drivers in the neighborhood and the jobs available. “The strategy,” Garvey said, “is to be in the right place at the right time.”
In Medford, Garvey grabbed a man with a camo hat and cane for an 11:15 appointment at Beth Israel. Then he took a Spanish-speaking woman home to Malden from the Harvard Vanguard Medical Center in Longwood. Both paid with vouchers.
For cabbies at Green Cab, the tablets rapidly digitized an old-fashioned industry. Other dispatchers told the Globe they are trying to introduce the technology to their cars, too.
Daniel Iger, founder of the Way Forward Taxi Alliance, sees that as a start. He runs WAAVE, a mobile application that connects customers to 100 cabbies in Boston, mostly for medical rides. But his next initiative focuses on modernizing cabs. A few months ago, Iger partnered with the Massachusetts Community Council to fund 10 grants for cabbies to replace their taxis with Teslas — a stylish car “that could lure people back to the cabs,” he said.
Yet throngs of drivers are left behind by these modernization initiatives or not connected with the contracts keeping dispatchers afloat. Many make half the money they did a decade ago, or have abandoned taxis altogether to “drive with the devil, Uber and Lyft,” as one former cabbie put it.
Arthur Rose, who drove a cab for three decades, cannot imagine a future where ride-hailing services fade into the background.
“The guys out there now are OK because a lot of Uber drivers gave up during the pandemic. But they’re coming back with a vengeance,” he said. “[The companies] will put thousands of cars out there to break the taxi industry, to keep it broken.”
Garvey has steeled himself to ride out the storm. He rounded out his Tuesday driving another regular: an older woman who once worked at Harvard Law School and now enlists Garvey to ferry her to errands — a stop at the dentist in Wellesley, a farm stand in Concord, a garden center in Winchester.
He intended to clock out at 4, but saw another enticing ride pop up at 4:15 p.m.
“I really don’t want to take it,” Garvey said.
He sighed and accepted the job before motoring home — 11 fares and $380 in his pocket for the day.
The alarm rang again the next day at 3 a.m.