New Orleans City Council opens the door for Uber


Michael Brinks of American Luxury Limousines speaks in opposition to today's proposed changes to the city's transportation code. "Uber X is here," he said. - JEANIE RIESS
  • Michael Brinks of American Luxury Limousines speaks in opposition to today's proposed changes to the city's transportation code. "Uber X is here," he said.

After months of heated debate, the New Orleans City Council finally passed an ordinance on a 4-3 vote to modify the city's existing for-hire vehicle code to allow for hail-a-car app technology, like the San Francisco-based transportation app Uber, to operate within the city. 

Under the ordinance passed today, luxury sedans and limousines will be able to connect with riders using app-based technology on their smartphones. Drivers also will be able to charge customers according to time and mile, much like a cab, but with a minimum fare of $15 for sedans, $25 for luxury SUVs and $45 for all other limousines. 

Those prices, says Uber's New Orleans general manager Tom Hayes, will make New Orleans one of the most expensive Uber markets in the country. Hayes told Gambit he's happy for the win, but he adds that the company would like to reduce those minimum fares. 

"We're glad we've taken these steps forward today," Hayes said. "The minimums that they've implemented will still put us on par with some of the most expensive markets in the country, so we still are disappointed in that approach. We're definitely looking to continue the conversations with the city to continue to more comprehensively reform transportation and provide consumers with the best alternatives."

Members of New Orleans' existing taxicab and limousine industry, which has fought Uber at every council hearing, reacted with disappointment and anger, saying that they have complied with city standards for cabs, while Uber and services like it would receive an unfair advantage in the market.

The greatest obstacle Uber has faced in the past several months has been the council's caution in regard to UberX, which is a service that would be in direct competition with existing taxis. Uber Black, the company's signature platform, connects riders with luxury sedans, SUVs and limousines, all of which require the participation of licensed, Certificate of Public Necessity & Convenience (CPNC) -carrying drivers. That is the service the company has tried hard to expand into the New Orleans market, and which the legislation passed today would allow.

UberX, meanwhile is a ride-sharing service that also uses app technology to hail a car, but it uses ordinary drivers who are employed by Uber and Uber only. City Councilmembers Susan Guidry and James Gray have been the most vocal about what they see as the dangers of UberX, citing the lack of insurance drivers employed by Uber are required to carry and the concern that UberX's drivers have not been properly vetted by the city. 

Guidry has warned at meeting after meeting that Uber X will be a reality for New Orleans as soon as the company grabs a foothold with Uber Black. Previously, Hayes has denied that accusation, saying that Uber Black is what's on the table. It is illegal for non-CPNC-holding individuals to drive for hire here, and representatives from the mayor's office who introduced the proposed ordinance said that the city will do its best to enforce the law. To that, Guidry responded, "We don't even have a head of the taxicab bureau." (Malachi Hull, the city's controversial Taxicab Bureau director, was fired in July and has not been replaced.)

"I feel like we're letting ourselves in for a world of hurt," Guidry said. "If we had stronger laws, I'd be more comfortable with this."

Al Hebron, the president of Flagship Limousines, called UberX "unenforceable" in his remarks to the council in opposition to the proposed ordinance. "Booting, tickets … mean nothing to an $18 billion company," he said. 

Two men, Christian Hebron and Carl Traub, both announced to the council that they had applied to work as drivers for UberX in New Orleans, and both had already begun the hiring process. Uber posted a call for drivers on the local job site today. Hebron said Uber asked about his vehicle, but Traub said the company did not. Both men said Uber did not ask them about their own personal insurance.

Gray and Guidry reiterated those concerns today and ultimately voted against the ordinance. District C Concilmember Nadine Ramsey also voted against the ordinance, both for concerns about UberX and because of the competition Uber will place on a taxicab industry that has been subject to all sorts of regulations, particularly the taxicab reforms of 2012, which changed the age requirements for vehicles and mandated all taxis to carry credit card machines and GPS devices. 

"Putting technology before business owners is not something I want to do," Ramsey said. 

After the meeting, Jason Coleman, who owns Coleman Cabs, said he had expected the city to give each side more time to make their cases. At today's meeting, the council set a limit of one minute per speakers and 10 minutes per side. More important, Coleman says, he believes Uber's ability to "price surge" — charge more during moments of high demand — will not only dissuade people from using the app, but will dissuade visitors to the city.

"People want set fares, amounts, distance, time," Coleman said. "You're now going to open the market up to a capitalist's takeover where they put us out of the realm of hosting big events, because once the old transportation foundation of limousines and taxicabs go out, you're going to have more people in the Uber market with surge pricing." 

Former Taxicab Bureau Chief Hull was similarly disillusioned. "I think the council is misinformed right now," he said. "What they've just done is removed the consumer protections and the safety provisions that were put in the code previously." Hull also said that wherever Uber Black is, UberX operates as well, because so few limo companies are willing to work with Uber.

But Councilmember Jared Brossett, who introduced the ordinance, closed him remarks during the meeting by saying, "It's about opportunity. It's competition for everybody, not just some." He was joined by Council President Stacy Head, Vice President Jason Williams and District B Councilmember LaToya Cantrell in approving Uber Black.

No timetable was given for Uber Black's entry into the market, but a search on Uber's smartphone app this afternoon showed no cars operating in the city.

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