It's a basic enough transaction, one repeated thousands of times daily in cities everywhere: A pedestrian hails a cab, the taxi pulls over, the passenger gets in and gives a destination, and they're off. Simple. Right?
Not always. When such an exchange occurs in New Orleans, it too often goes something like this: A pedestrian hails a cab, the taxi driver notices the potential passenger is a minority, and keeps right on driving -- in search of customers who are white, affluent-looking, and preferably a tourist.
As cab drivers and patrons both acknowledged in a recent Gambit Weekly cover story ("No Fare," Sept. 4), cabbies regularly cruise past minority customers, and sometimes blatantly refuse to pick up a black person or to enter certain parts of town. It happens all the time, although New Orleans' city code specifically prohibits cabbies from doing so.
Drivers say that being selective about passengers and destinations can be a life-saving practice -- and such "gut instinct" decision-making isn't something that can be mandated. Taxi drivers relay sobering stories of violent and sometimes deadly robberies; of being asked to wait in the cab as the passenger makes a drug deal nearby; of the threat of ambush when they travel through poorly lit, unfamiliar neighborhoods. As cab drivers, they fear, they are rolling advertisements for quick cash.
It isn't surprising that a cab driver would prefer to wait for a high-dollar airport run rather than pick up a local who needs a ride to and from the supermarket. Or that they'd rather cater to tourists bound for a familiar venue than deal with service industry workers trying to get home at 3 a.m.
Their concerns are genuine. But refusing to transport minorities and those who live near high-crime areas is no way for cab drivers to operate in New Orleans. It's discriminatory. And it's illegal.
One way New Orleans can answer cab drivers' concerns is to mandate taxicab safety features such as those recommended by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and ordered in cities such as Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., and Houston. Such devices include automatic cameras in every taxi, bulletproof shields between driver and passenger, and silent alarms. Cities that have enforced such measures have seen significant drops in cab-related crimes.
New Orleans must adopt similar ordinances -- beginning with automatic cameras -- and require that the costs of installing and maintaining such devices fall upon licensees who own the Certificate of Public Necessity and Convenience (CPNC) numbers assigned to every New Orleans taxicab.
Most taxi drivers rent, not own, CPNC numbers from licensees such as cab companies who pay up to $42,000 for each number. If a CPNC holder is willing to shell out thousands to operate a taxicab, he or she should also be willing to take reasonable measures to protect the driver. Such a law would have to bar CPNC holders from shifting the costs to drivers. The New Orleans City Council should also consider amending our drivers-for-hire ordinance to add more taxicabs specifically for underserved parts of town.
In dealing with complaints from citizens, the city can easily build upon its existing strength: the New Orleans Taxicab Bureau. This "cab complaint court" is known for being fair and reasonable, but it needs more presence. Few people in New Orleans even know the Taxicab Bureau exists, so relatively few customers end up with satisfactory responses to legitimate gripes. The times of the twice-weekly hearings aren't publicized; nor are their results. The Taxicab Bureau should post its "complaints number" prominently on the inside of every cab, cab stand and receipt, and post the results of every hearing on the bureau's Web site (www.new-orleans.la.us/cnoweb/util/html/taxicab_complaint_.html).
Also, Taxicab Bureau inspectors are currently on the streets from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, but not during nights and weekends. The bureau should reorganize its schedule to have more inspectors working when cabs are busiest, giving them a better chance of nabbing drivers who regularly refuse to pick up minority passengers.
The goals of stopping passenger discrimination and ensuring driver safety can be -- and must be -- pursued simultaneously. Edward Rogoff, a professor of management at New York's Baruch College and an expert on the taxicab industry, notes that cab drivers often quit the business out of concern for their safety. This high turnover rate among drivers costs the city, Rogoff says. "New Orleans would like to have a cadre of professional, experienced, knowledgeable drivers," he says. "So making the profession easier to stay in, by making it safer and making it an easier job to do, is in the city's interest."
The bottom line is that New Orleans sorely needs its cabs, and it needs well-trained cab drivers who feel safe while working. Though the issues facing cab drivers are genuine, no problem was ever solved through discrimination. New Orleans must help its drivers. And its drivers must pull over for all New Orleanians.