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.