By Clay Davis
Fifteen years from now, a teenager who hasn’t been born yet may look up from their phone and ask you what a taxi is with the same look of confusion on their face some receive today when a cassette tape or a fax machine is mentioned. For years taxi companies have attempted to fulfill the demand in the for-hire transportation industry in New Orleans, but since the city council ruling on April 9th of 2015, a new commercial option has emerged in the form of ridesharing applications. Uber is the most popular of these applications, with a global network of customers and independently contracted drivers operating at all hours. Since the council hearing, the company has taken the city by storm, with thousands of riders and drivers now using the app in favor of the more conventional, and popularly declining, taxi option.
Maneuvering around New Orleans can be tricky for both tourists and locals as drivers attempt to navigate through seemingly endless road construction, tire-eating potholes, and coincidentally inconvenient one-way streets. Though buses and the famous streetcar lines provide an essential source of public transport, their routes are relatively constrained. Demand for transportation exceeds the supply. A taxi business, whether in the form of a ridesharing app or a conventional cab company, is necessary. Locals, and more commonly carless tourists, require the use of taxi services to reach remote locations such as the airport, to elude harm after an indulgent evening, or to avoid the expensive and meager parking options in crowded areas like the French Quarter.
The benefits of Uber are clear for both its riders and drivers, with incentives including cheaper rates, an easy payment system, and an efficient and flexible process. For drivers, the work is phrased by the company as a partnership rather than an employment, in which Uber receives 20% of the fare. For riders, it is termed as a ride sharing experience, in which the customer and driver participate as equals in the same journey.
Bobby, a local New Orleanian pastor at a church in the 9th Ward and the director of an educational and community development nonprofit organization, has been working part-time as an Uber driver for about seven weeks. According to Bobby, being an Uber driver “is the ideal job for someone with a full time job that wants a part time job,” helping to provide him with another source of cash to support his children’s education. On the surface his hard work ethic may be difficult to discern. His easygoing attitude, openness, and hearty laugh mask the passionate seriousness and care he has for his family and community. With a son in college and a daughter preparing for the application process, Bobby is in need of extra income. He drives his own car, takes great care to maintain a positive working environment by keeping his car “clean and straight,” and makes an effort to engage with those he shares rides with. Bobby stresses the importance of encouraging this positivity in the ridesharing experience, as every customer he picks up rides in the same car he drives his family in, entering a space he calls home.
For Bobby, Uber is an informal family business. His nephew introduced him to the app, and what he describes as the “great opportunity” it provides with its flexible schedule. Both his daughter and wife use the app, and Bobby has preached its benefits to several friends who have also joined as drivers. According to him, the app has “brought some infrastructure to the city.” He sees the relatively new presence of the app as a positive influence on the New Orleans community and its economy.
Monroe Coleman, another native New Orleanian, owns and operates the Coleman Cab Company. His operation is a more conventional family business; his father started the company in 1947, and both his sister and son work as drivers. Similar to Uber’s terminology, Mr. Coleman refers to drivers as “associates,” who are independent contractors also working when they want, having to go “where the money is to get it when they can.” He, along with other cab drivers, seeks to promote “repeat business,” trying to be as “appealing to the riding public as possible based on how you dress, the cleanliness of your vehicle, and the friendliness of your personality.”
Mr. Coleman stresses the importance of appearance, noting that the main consumer demographic is tourists, and that it’s his responsibility to promote the “ambassadorship to the city.” His business is inherently tied to New Orleans, as he seeks to establish a character and provide “the charm of the industry and the city.” Mr. Coleman is quite the character. At the age of 69, he speaks with rhythmic grace, sporting black cowboy boots with what he describes as a “cranberry shirt” and a “western hat.”
Mr. Coleman notes that the “riding public has a choice of transportation,” and with an influx of Uber drivers offering rides at the touch of a button with cheaper rates that undercut his, “there is less meat on the table.” According to Mr. Coleman, there is currently “not a level playing field,” and taxi drivers are having to work longer hours to make ends meet. His operation, along with every other taxi company in the city big or small, is being hit particularly hard in areas essential for business like Uptown and at hotels. The evidence of this strain was clear during our interview, when Mr. Coleman struggled to stay awake between questions, noting that he’d been up since five in the morning and would have to be working long into the night.
This competitive imbalance is instituted by city law that imposes fixed rates, requires commercial insurance, a taxi license, and expensive up-to-date equipment like credit card machines, meters, and cameras. Uber is able to operate outside of these limitations, frequently increasing their rates during what is termed “surge pricing,” which depends on demand. Uber drivers operate with a personal license and insurance that Mr. Coleman claims doesn’t cover commercial work. As a result, Mr. Coleman, along with other cab companies, have filed several lawsuits against Uber.
Shu-Yi Oei, a law professor at Tulane specializing in taxation law and currently studying the economic impact of ridesharing applications including Uber, has noted several issues with both Uber and taxis. Contrary to Mr. Coleman’s claim, professor Oei revealed “Uber offers drivers a commercial insurance policy that covers accidents occurring from the time the driver accepts a customer until the end of the trip.” She also indicated that the tax filing process for Uber drivers is more traceable than that for cabs, which may receive payment and tips in cash that allows more room for tax evasion. However, she noted a potential problem called the “property taking theory,” in which the requirement of taxi cab drivers to buy a license from the government is basically a form of taking property away from those cab drivers by not enforcing Uber to buy the same license. Regardless of opinion, it is clear that there are multiple forms of imbalance between taxicabs and Uber. The question is whether that imbalance will continue to tip in Uber’s favor, or if will be leveled out through legislation or the adaptation of cab companies.
Despite the mix of problems and benefits of Uber’s insertion into the New Orleans economy, the company is here to stay. While both cabbies and Uber drivers like Mr. Coleman and Bobby may be at odds in terms of business, they share a similar character and role of ambassadorship. Both seek to make ends meet and operate in a positive environment. Mr. Coleman describes New Orleans as “a tale of two cities,” comprised of “the emerging growth city and one trying to hold onto the Southern charm, and at one point the emerging growth is gonna win out.” He contends that taxi companies are “killing each other” through competition, and that they need to work together to become a “one-app city through the tourist bureau.” In a system where every for-hire company shares business through the app, cabs could compete on the same level as Uber. After all, most people really only care about getting a ride as quickly as possible. With a one-app adaptation that includes more cars than Uber, cab companies could not only survive, but prosper. In Mr. Coleman’s mind, taxi operations “have to embrace that newness of communication in transportation that Uber has brought into to your hand, right into your pocket.”
If they don’t, “at some point [they’ll] get rolled over,” along with the Southern charm and history they’ve brought to the city.
Clay Davis is from Los Angeles. He is a sophomore at Tulane studying English.