Jefferson Parish Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng hailed an Uber car from her smartphone app for the first time while in London. Her estimated wait time was five minutes. One minute and 40 seconds later, her car arrived.
"It's one of those things where after you use it, you're excited to tell people about it," she told Gambit. "I could understand everyone's excitement for it."
On Feb. 11, the Jefferson Parish Council is expected to vote on a measure from council members Lee-Sheng and Ben Zahn to allow transit services and apps like Uber to operate in unincorporated parts of the parish, including Metairie, River Ridge, Jefferson, Harvey and Marrero. In an email to Gambit, Zahn said before he and Lee-Sheng looked into legislation, they were impressed with Uber's screening processes, immediate responses to calls for service and the cleanliness of the cars.
"The more I looked into it, I found an incredibly positive response from those who have used the service," Zahn said.
The New Orleans City Council passed legislation last year allowing Uber to operate its Uber Black service, which uses existing limousine and black car companies like high-end taxicabs. UberX was specifically left out of that legislation, and its services are illegal in New Orleans. Council members Jared Brossett and Susan Guidry are bringing UberX back to the table with separate measures that could be heard in City Council committees in late February or early March. If Jefferson Parish and New Orleans allow UberX, Lee-Sheng said she envisions a "seamless" transit network between the parishes.
What changed among council members? And how will the cab industry handle another round of fighting for their place at the table?
Brossett said much of his freshmen year on the City Council was spent in city budget talks, which dominated many of last year's meetings. Now he's ready to tackle UberX.
"Instead of New Orleans always being on the back end, let's address this on the front end," he said. "It's not going anywhere. They're going to be here whether we like it or not."
The "transportation networking services" ordinances from Brossett and Guidry are similar. Each requires UberX drivers to pay an annual fee, undergo a criminal background check and vehicle inspections, and have commercial liability insurance. Guidry wants to set driver permit fees at $100,000; Brossett has set it at $75,000.
In September, when New Orleans opened the door for Uber Black, Guidry was an outspoken critic of the company, warning that UberX would follow close behind. UberX requires its drivers to carry their own insurance, and it's been criticized for not properly scrutinizing drivers' background checks.
"You were hearing me berate Uber before, and now I'm putting in legislation," Guidry told Gambit. "But it is consumer protection legislation."
"The concern is exactly the reason I've done the ordinance, to put the consumer safety restrictions in place," she added. "Uber may come into a city without even talking to them about it. They may wait until they have permission for Uber Black to come in. And then they roll in with UberX also. They're really not very predictable, except to know they're unpredictable and that they don't wait to follow the law."
Though Uber is the estimated $40 billion company at the center of the transportation debate, both New Orleans ordinances would allow any app-based for-hire car service to enter New Orleans, including Lyft, Sidecar or a local player.
Surge pricing — the practice of setting higher rates during times of peak demand — is handled differently in the ordinances. Both council members expressed concern about emergencies such as hurricanes and evacutions, where vehicles likely will be in high demand. Brossett wants a general rate cap where drivers can't charge more than 1.5 times the average rate over a three-month period, while Guidry's proposal prohibits any kind of rate hike during a citywide emergency.
Lee-Sheng's measure also calls for potential Uber drivers in Jefferson to undergo annual sex offender and criminal background checks to ensure there's a safety "framework in place before they even get to the market." Though sympathetic to surge pricing, Lee-Sheng said state price-gouging laws should apply.
"We need that amount of drivers on the road," she said. "How do we incentivize them to get out there, to drop their plans and go to work?"
The Jefferson Parish measure also prohibits drivers from using cars more than 10 years old and from working more than 12 hours consecutively.
Brossett said it's likely the proposed New Orleans ordinances will be consolidated and amendments added as the bills move through the process.
"This is a transportation option that many of our citizens are calling for," he said. "I think it'll be an asset to the city. I would hope to have majority support. I haven't gone in depth with my other colleagues relative to this, but I look forward to getting their feedback and with any issues, trying to resolve those."
In Guidry's view, vehicles for hire — arranged via smartphone app — are already here, it's just a matter of how the city chooses to deal with them. Uber has been advertising for UberX drivers in New Orleans since the city explicitly reminded the company in September that the service is illegal.
"For months I've been asking the [Landrieu] administration which direction they would like to go in," Guidry said. "I had meetings that included [Brossett], the head of [the City Council's transportation committee], but I had gotten no real response. As you know, we don't have a taxicab bureau director right now, so ... I felt it was crucial to make a decision one way or another."
The councilwoman said the city has two options: ban the services or regulate them and penalize violators.
"Have the regulations in place so that if they violated the regulations, you are able to cite them for that violation, impound the vehicles," Guidry said. "It's one thing for Uber to tell the drivers, 'Oh, go on. It's OK if you're illegal. We'll pay the fines.' And that's what they've been doing in other cities. It's another thing when that driver is going to have his car impounded or immobilized. That would give a potential Uber driver some serious thought, I think."
Uber Black has had a bumpy start in its initial four months of operation in New Orleans, mostly because it has been unable to meet the city's demand for rides due to the limited number of Certificates of Public Necessity and Convenience (CPNCs) issued. On Feb. 6, the city issued 150 new CPNCs, which Tom Hayes, Uber's local general manager, said will vastly improve the high-end hail-a-cab Uber Black platform. As for UberX, Hayes is optimistic the city will follow the example of Baton Rouge and Lafayette, both of which passed UberX legislation during the past year.
"There's definitely a few details that we're still discussing, but we've met with the council members that have introduced legislation," Hayes said. "We've met with [Mayor Mitch Landrieu's] office. These conversations have been really productive, and we're confident that we're going to get [legislation] in the near future that passes that's something we can operate with."
But UberX operating in New Orleans is exactly what the taxi industry has feared since murmurs about Uber Black began.
"It's going to crush the taxi industry," United Cabs President Syed Kazmi told Gambit. "We are an industry that is regulated. Two and a half years ago there were reforms — you had to have a certain age on your vehicle, GPS, credit card machines ... we did all that, and now they are allowing someone who can come and have any car they want to have and charge whatever they want to charge. This is just a free ride. You can just go and start making money."
Guidry, however, doesn't foresee doom for the cab industry.
"I believe there are differences [between cab services and Uber]," she said. "Different people are going to choose to continue to use taxicabs and different people are going to choose to use Uber. For one thing, UberX cannot take hails. ... UberX cannot pick up at hotels unless somebody with an app has called them. Their passengers must come through the app. And there will always be some people who believe that the only way they can be sure of their fare is to have a metered fare for the cab."
Guidry also reiterated a common sentiment: If cab companies are down and out about being replaced, they should have stepped up to the plate long ago to prove themselves viable, reliable transit options.
"More people would take cabs if the cabs would be more available in more locations," Guidry said. "That's one of the frustrating things, and it's why I tell the cab industry, you know, 'you shot yourself in the foot.' I mean, by telling people you would not take them from the French Quarter out to Lakeview, or you will not go pick them up. You call for a cab service here in Mid-City and can't get one. That's what creates this cry from the public for alternative transportation options."
Brossett said he welcomes input from the cab industry concerning the ordinance, and Lee-Sheng said the Jefferson council wants to work with that parish's cab companies, which have called her ordinance "unfair."
"We want to make sure they're competitive as well," Lee-Sheng said.
Kazmi says the thought that UberX will solve everything is ridiculous.
"The idea that you will just press a button a get a cab is not going to happen," he said. United Cabs has been developing an app for a year, he said, and it should be ready for download after Mardi Gras.
"It's better than Uber," Kazmi said. "Trust me."