Oct 012012
 

Owen Courreges

About a year ago I was in a United Cab with a friend headed for Banks Street Bar to see a band perform. Although I normally maintain a “no conversations” rule with cabbies due to my own social awkwardness, the driver was friendly and we started a conversation.

He was from Pakistan. I received my undergraduate degree in political science, and I was interested in a native’s take on the political turmoil there. The discussion was enlightening. After the ride, the driver continued to converse with me for a while as we parked – my friend had to come grab me to tell me I was going to miss the music if I lingered much longer.

A few months ago I read an article that a Pakistani cab driver had been murdered in Eastern New Orleans. I recognized the man I had spoken with from his photo. He had been robbed, shot and left for dead.

Cab drivers have it rough. They’re more likely to be killed than police officers or fire fighters, and they generally make far less money. Right now, however, their primary threat is from the city.

Today, new city regulations take effect that will have a major impact on taxis in New Orleans. Cabs will have to be less than 11 years old, which makes most cabs in New Orleans illegal. Starting in 2014, they can be no more than 7 years old, and this coming January, no cabs older than 5 years can be put into service. Security cameras, credit card readers and GPS devices will also become mandatory.

I can understand asking taxis to accept credit cards and install GPS devices, and security cameras may just be a good idea in a general sense to deter crime against taxi drivers. And yes, younger cabs are typically less likely to break down.

On the other hand, is this really the time to enact strict, new regulations? I’m sure there are some cab drivers in the city with older vehicles that they keep in good condition, and others would be willing to do significant repairs to their older cabs. However, they just can’t afford to buy a new vehicle. Heck, my primary vehicles are a 1951 Chevrolet Styleline passenger car and a 1960 Ford F-100 pickup. I know that older vehicles can be maintained. Age, as they say, isn’t everything.

And while GPS devices and security cameras may seem boffo, they still cost money and aren’t clearly necessary. Cabbies who really know the city don’t need GPS, and security cameras really only benefit passengers if the driver is dishonest. Should honest drivers who know the city be forced to sacrifice their already tight margins on new equipment designed to deter scoundrels and the incompetent?

All that said, I’m all for the credit card reader requirement. It’s long overdue and actually inures to the general benefit of cab drivers because it makes the general public more likely to use taxis when they know that payment isn’t an issue. Nevertheless, this commonsense requirement has been coupled with expensive policies that will hurt owner-operators.

The real drive behind the new taxi regulations is tourism. Aside from the airport, the first aspect of New Orleans visitors see is our cab fleet. Nobody wants that impression to be a shabby one.

Nonetheless, I don’t want taxi drivers to become the grist of the tourist industry. They’re already on the lower rungs. They’re already risking their lives. Do we really have to push them to these high standards in such a short period and during the deepest recession in at least forty years?

To be certain, cab drivers are the beneficiaries of fare regulations (which have recently been increased) and of government barriers-to-entry (which restrict the size of the fleet), so it’s not as though the city is taking from cabbies and giving nothing in return. However, every industry is regulated and there needs to a balance to ensure the health of business owners. With these regulations, the city isn’t just setting its finger on one side of the scale, it’s sitting on it.

But perhaps I just have a soft spot for cabbies, and an unrealistic perception of driving a cab as being a common stepping stone to achieving the American Dream. If so, I won’t be apologizing for that, or for my skepticism of these new regulations.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

  18 Responses to “Owen Courreges: Cracking down on cabbies”

  1. Lets not forget that cabbies have free will and chose to become cab drivers. I take drinking and driving seriously and take cabs all the time. New Orleans cabs are typically gross and the last thing I want to do is get in an old, dirty, smelly, cab with nice clothes on. Worst of all, you can’t reliably call a cab to pick you up on a weekend night. We frequently have to take our car, park it overnight near the restaurant or bar we are going to, and cab it home.

    I travel frequently and have seen what is reasonable to expect from cab drivers- and let me tell you, what we have in New Orleans is not it. Even better- more people want to enter this market but are locked out by shortages of medallions. Checkout Uber.com. This service allows limo companies to act like cabs- and for nearly the same fare! Cabbies hate it, riders love it. Why? Because the free market works and that means faster service, credit card processing, cleaner cars, etc!

    The only reason to feel bad for a cab driver is because the safety issues and because they are taken advantage of by the guy that holds the medallion. But then again, it must be a better job than any other they could accept.

    It’s time for you to stop accepting subpar service- it is what makes New Orleans sub-par!

    • JeffR,

      I agree that some improvements are prudent, but I don’t think these regulations will necessarily get us there. Initially I think we’ll see fewer cabs on the road and pressure for further fare hikes. Moreover, a new cab can be just as dirty as an older one.

      I also agree (of course) that becoming a cab driver is voluntary, but on the other hand the regulations are mandatory. People have a right to pick a job or profession based on their own preferences and overregulation can interfere with that. That said, the dangers are inherent and do not necessarily result from regulation, but I think we still need to bear in mind the overall environment in which cab drivers operate.

    • I agree that the free market works, which is why the city should not impose regulations on taxis except to protect the public good (I support the safety cameras). Let the cabs who provide a clean ride, good service, and convenience beat their competition.

      • Your “free market” argument isn’t focusing on the right market. The city is imposing the non-public-safety restrictions because of tourists, not locals (i.e., so when tourist gets into a cab, its clean, new, and accepts credit cards). It puts a good face on the city, and a crappy experience in a cab could often be the first (arrival) and last (departure) experience a tourist has.

        Sure, in a completely closed market, maybe (MAYBE) “the cab drivers who provide a clean ride, good service, and convenience” might beat out their system (but probably not, since most people who are looking for a cab ride are just looking for the first available four wheels), but tourists will lack whatever knowledge you think others will derive from your “free market” vantage-point. The result? The city looks worse to tourists. Tourism is a competitive industry, and while many aspects of NOLA sell itself, sometimes the little things matter most.

  2. The cab drivers in this city are complete A-Holes, especially to the locals. Try getting a cab during Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, Super Bowl etc. while standing at a cab stand in a service industry uniform. It’s never going to happen. I can’t count how many times I had to walk home from the Quarter because cabs refused to transport one person.

  3. I love it when cabbies lay on their horn at 5am to pick up their fare as opposed to calling them or knocking on the door, all while double parked, blocking traffic with plenty of space to pull over. Cabbies are the most inconsiderate divers in New Orleans and they get no sympathy or respect from me.

    The major problem with this city is our lowered expectations and the incredibly low bar we’ve set for business, services, politics, etc… We’ve become content with total crappiness. The time is well overdue to get our collective house in order and taxi reforms are just a small step.

    • thacky,

      Be careful about overgeneralizing. There are some very bad cabbies, but I’m sure there are many that obey the rules and aren’t noticed because they aren’t always blaring their horns and stopping in the middle of the road. In any event, forcing cabbies to have newer vehicles, GPS and security cameras won’t cause them to become better, more considerate drivers. These are superficial reforms and they don’t necessarily merit your support.

  4. Although I have to agree with many of the complaints against New Orleans cab drivers, I also have to come to their defense. (I am getting sick and tired of the line: “they chose to be cab drivers, so stop bellyaching.” People often HAVE to take jobs that are demeaning, low-paying, and sometimes outright dangerous. As Americans, we have the right AND the duty to try to IMPROVE our lot, not just lay down and take it. Guess that’s the [gulp!] “Lib-rul” in me.) MY experience with one company (I ONLY call a particular one) includes most negative comments already stated by some commentators. BUT, more often I have courteous, helpful, and careful drivers. My main concern is being totally ignored during certain days or for certain “events”. Locals need more consideration. Often, I am stranded and have no other mens to get home.

    • Donald,

      That’s not liberal at all. The issue here is whether a profession will be regulated more or less. The conservative position should be that if an individual wants to pay somebody else to drive them somewhere, that’s largely their business and government interference should be minimal, and that onerous regulation will increase costs and harm commerce. Those consequences can also be described in terms of limiting the ability of people to improve their lot through free enterprise. It’s a colder way of describing it, but it invokes traditional rights of freedom of contract that we abandoned in Lochner. Perhaps we need those again.

  5. Owen, much as I appreciate the anemic nature of the economic recovery. We haven’t been in recession for over 3 years.

    On top of that, most cabbies won’t be affected by this at all. Few own their own medallion and I’m surprised you were unaware of that.

    It is in the public interest to have a decent fleet of cabs, that’s why they are regulated. This regulation makes sense and the costs mostly will be borne (born)?) by the owners of the big cab companies. I usually take your “libertarian ” views with a grain of salt, but this piece reeks.

    • not a cab driver,

      I think we have been in a recession for over three years. In any event, the depth of the recession, regardless of its length, has been worse since any recession since at least the early 1980’s, and probably at least since the years following World War II.

      And anything that affects the CPNC holders will affect the cabbies. The holders will pass on the costs to the drivers; the notion that they’ll just take a haircut on this and leave drivers unscathed is as comical as it is naive. And don’t say that anybody “owns” a “medallion.” The word from the city is that these are just permits that can be revoked at any time, and they’re jacking up transfer fees as well to at least 20% of the purchase price. It’s disingenuous to mention ownership when there are no property rights involved.

      Furthermore, many of those buying up CPNCs right now are out-of-state businesses that are in favor of the new regulations, ostensibly because they can afford to comply and thus the regulations stick it to local competition:

      http://thelensnola.org/2011/09/21/taxi-certificates-open-market/

      Compare that to the cooperative that is United Cab, where most of the fleet is over five years old, and you begin to understand the potential damage here. Even if you’re right that most of the CPNCs are owned by big business interests and not by operators, that hardly tells the whole story. More regulation will push this to even larger players, and largely out-of-state players. It will harm those drivers who still own a CPNC and force them to sell, creating even larger lobbying interests and even greater pressure to increase fares.

      The only thing that reeks here are these regulations.

  6. Owen, I am so sorry about your Pakistani cab driver who was murdered. But, to your remarks. I was once on a cab on the way home from the airport and the car stalled on I-10. The cab driver was able to get the car going, but it was a terrifying few seconds. I thought someone would plow into us. Another time, my husband and I got into a cab at the airport after returning from a trip abroad – we had been up for almost 24 hours. The cab driver did not speak English. We had a hard time explaining the way home (he had no idea what the Claiborne exit was) – and we had to explain what right and left meant – by using body language! The cabs are the first impression for tourists. Definitely, changes need to be made. Reliable cars, and drivers who can speak English.

  7. “And while GPS devices and security cameras may seem boffo, they still
    cost money and aren’t clearly necessary. Cabbies who really know the
    city don’t need GPS, and security cameras really only benefit passengers
    if the driver is dishonest.”

    I have to disagree. Given the recent kidnap and rape of a young intoxicated woman by the cab driver she had trusted to take her home, I think that GPS and cameras are 100% necessary. As a young woman, I would rather drive home drunk than try to walk or take a cab for this very reason. That’s a horrible choice to have to make, and I know most cab drivers aren’t intending on raping their passengers. However, I have had one too many uncomfortable experiences with cab drivers attempting to drive me in a direction I know is wrong, thinking maybe that I don’t know my way or am too drunk to notice. I’ve had a cab driver switch out my debit card for someone else’s and go on a shopping spree with my money.

    GPS would mitigate dishonest drivers from taking people on round-about trips, or even kidnapping them. This is standard is NYC and many other cities.

    Cameras would allow victims to be able to prove beyond a doubt the crime had taken place, and also discourage cab drivers like Iqbal from committing the crime in the first place.

    It’s nice for you that, as a man, this is not in your realm of concern but as a woman these are things I have to stay vigilant about all the time. More security measures in cabs would be a welcome addition, and also make me feel more comfortable about using them.

  8. If city hall cared about this taxi industry, perhaps they would put a stop to the inside corruption. they know darn well what’s going on …cabbies need real powerful legal representation to stop city hall from continuing these barbaric attacks and unjust regulations…they’re behaving like I.R.S. agents. they need to place cameras on all city employee vehicles to see how our tax paying dollars are wasted

  9. …and now we have a United Cab driver who has been charged with raping a drunk female passenger, who tried to do the right and SAFE thing by taking a cab instead of driving or walking… Regulate the ever-living HELL out of these folks. She sadly had a better chance of arriving home safely by walking home that night…Sadly neither she or any of us knew that until after the fact. I have had some friendly cabbies here too, but more asses than friendlies. I’m all for these new regulations. We have to start taking more pride in this city from many more angles than we currently do. It starts with cleaning up from the inside out…

  10. First of all I would like to aplogize to those ppl who cleam that they have taken an “old, dirty ,smelly, unsafe………and on and on but one thing most ppl seem to forget is that every city cab get inspected twice a year plus randomly can be stoped and be checked on the spot by the so called city taxi regulator , my question to you is how do those vehicles pass the inspection ? And also as a cab driver for the last 12 years let me share my experience in this industry , I have a 2004 suburban in very great condition always clean and also I accept crdit card for the last five years dealing with my own bank at 1.64% for visa and master card and 3.5% for amx I have no problem but with the new city ordinance the city have hand picked two credit card company CMT and Veriphone at 10% of my hard earned money and the companies contract will be from 60-84 months so is this what you call improving the cab industry ? Second, camera the city approved only one company 24/7 security from canada .so, to make the story short ,my inspection was due this last September as right now I can not work because I don’t have the hard ware installed even though forcibly I signed my contract with the companies two weeks ago they are back order and god knows when they will ship the product untill then the city is hunting dawn the drivers and slapping us with $250.00-$500.00 ticket for not in complied. The GPS don’t be fooled they are not talking about the GPS to take you from point one to the next, it is a tracking system so enough said first is first the city need to clean up their own house first new car don’t mean everything is solve I hope this shades a little light to the confusing and I speak the same on behalf of many hard working drivers .

  11. One last comment…I promise.
    I recently was sent a cab with one of those voiced GPS devices. It was hilarious!!! The female voice had NO clue as to the pronunciation of the various streets, even the ones that are obvious. “Take right onto “Chart-tress” than a right on-tue Be-inn-ville-es.” The company must employ well intentioned Asians with absolutely NO knowledge of English or the city they are “positioning”. It was funny at first and then became outright annoying. I asked the driver to PLEASE, shut the thing DOWN.

  12. I become the midnight illegal non conforming cab driver during the Jazz Festival. I do not charge any fare for my service but at least I know that the visitor to our city riding in my rod won`t be discouraged from returning because of the city`s crappy taxi cab system. Waiting over an hour for a cab is just unacceptable.
    Are there any cab companies in the city that can handle handicapped passengers?

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