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The Uber dilemma


New Orleans relies on taxis. A city with no closing times for bars, a thriving tourism industry and a reputation for street crime needs reliable, round-the-clock transportation options. In recent months, there's been a push to give locals and visitors more alternatives.

  The New Orleans City Council is scheduled to vote July 22 on proposed revisions to the municipal transportation ordinance to allow Uber — the company that has steadily moved into cities around the world, offering formidable competition to cabbies — to operate locally. The proposed ordinance would lower the minimum rate for some livery services (town cars, limos, SUVs) while not explicitly addressing Uber's popular "UberX" program, which is a direct competitor to traditional cabs. Still, no one doubts that UberX is the company's ultimate end game in a 24-hour town like New Orleans. Understandably, the local cab industry is in a furor trying to box out Uber, and certain council members and limo operators also are skeptical.

  Uber's arrival has been controversial in nearly every city where it operates. In San Francisco, where it's well-established, a cab company president told the San Francisco Examiner he thought the local taxi industry would "collapse" by the end of 2015 because of Uber. Cabs have staged traffic-snarling protests in London, Washington D.C. and Madrid. Las Vegas and Miami, where taxi companies hold strong sway in municipal government, have banned the company.

  Cab companies have complained, rightly, that Uber doesn't have to operate under the same municipal restrictions that they do. This is true. Uber insists it's not a transportation service, but merely a communications app that connects riders and drivers and shouldn't be subject to city laws governing cabs. Cab drivers say this puts them at a disadvantage.

  Many customers looking for rides across town likely don't care. They just want a ride that's reliable, fast and safe, a car in decent repair and a driver who won't balk at a destination or, worse, not show up. Judging from its success, Uber provides all of that in most cases. What's more, drivers and riders can rate one another, and neither party needs cash; payments and tips are charged to customers' credit cards, which are stored online.

  Uber's reputation isn't just for reliable rides. It has become synonymous with naked capitalism; its brash CEO, Travis Kalanick, is about as sympathetic to cabbies as Gordon Gekko, the avaricious trader from Oliver Stone's Wall Street, was to his competitors. "We're in a political campaign, and the candidate is Uber, and the opponent is an asshole named Taxi," Kalanick told attendees at a California tech conference in late May.

  For generations, traditional cab companies have had a lock on the local for-hire transportation market. Uber's arrival (or "disruption," in tech parlance) rightly has them nervous. But there's precedent. Ask travel agents about what Expedia and have done to their industry. Or ask local independent booksellers about Amazon. (For that matter, ask a newspaper publisher what effect Craigslist and the Internet as a whole has done for that industry.)

  Earlier this year, the heads of United Cabs and Coleman Cab told Gambit they were "working on" their own apps to compete with Uber. We went back to them last month to ask how that was going. It seems little to no progress has been made. Monroe Coleman, head of Coleman Cab, said his company has met the city's compliance standards for taxis and added, "The city should protect their investors. ... We invested in the cab business." That's true, but by that logic, if Uber or any other company meets city standards, they should have the right to operate as well.

  It's not clear what the council will decide. Judging from recent statements, Uber has the backing of both Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Council President Stacy Head. Uber is balking at some parts of the ordinance, calling the proposed minimum fares "price-fixing." (It's not, though it's clear that the provision in the ordinance is designed to give existing transportation companies some home-field advantage.)

  It's also not clear what form Uber and services like it ultimately will take in New Orleans. What is clear is that the future is no longer coming to the local taxi industry; it's here, and cabbies need a competitive strategy that goes beyond the word "No," or they risk being left in the dust — another victim of technology. So far the taxi industry's strategy seems unclear. Meanwhile, New Orleanians just want a safe, reliable ride.

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