Credit Card Machines . . . Smart Meters and Passenger
Information Monitors . . . Age-Limited Vehicles and More . . .
As it stands, if cab drivers want to continue ferrying passengers in New Orleans, they will have to comply. But in an industry populated, for the most part, by smalltime independent contractors eking out a living on fares and tips are these new rules fair?
In October of 2012, officials with the town of Amherst, Mass., proposed the first law to regulate its taxi cab industry in almost 20 years. The legislation proposed by Amherst’s leaders would require all cabs to – get this – install meters. Though not entirely uncommon, Amherst taxis currently use a zoned system with set prices instead of meters. So if a passenger is picked up in Zone A and wants to go to Zone C, there is a predetermined price for the trip. The practice has resulted in drivers unfairly undercutting their competitors by offering to make a trip at a rate lower than the established price. It is an activity town officials want to reign in. And according to media reports, many taxi cab owners and operators are receptive to the increased regulation of the nascent industry in the tiny town.
Still, it’s a bit of news that makes what is happening in New Orleans’ taxi cab industry seem incredibly tyrannical and high-handed. There are actually cabs operating in America without meters even as city officials in New Orleans feel justified in pushing GPS devices, credit card machines, passenger information monitor systems, smart meters, security cameras and vehicle age limits on local cabbies.
Now in all fairness, Amherst is just a quiet college town in the Connecticut River valley. A town with a population about one-tenth the size of New Orleans, it is generally considered a part of the Springfield, Mass. metropolitan area. And while the town—birthplace of American poet Emily Dickinson—attracts its share of visitors; it is surely no New Orleans when it comes to tourism.
That is the very same argument those pushing against the new stringent, arguably unreasonable regulations in New Orleans have raised. Many, like Monroe Coleman of the Coleman Cab Co., view the new rules pushed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration as both an attempt to push out the independent cab driver in favor of large fleet companies as well as an effort to make the local taxi industry mirror that of much larger cities. But just as Amherst is no New Orleans, New Orleans (pop. 360,700 plus) is no New York City (pop. 8.2 million plus). Neither is it Boston (pop. 625,000 plus), Los Angeles (pop. 3.8 million plus) or Chicago (pop. 2.7 million plus).
What’s more is that if city leaders are indeed taking a page from the playbooks of other, much larger cities that have imposed demanding regulation on those working in their taxi industry, they should know that it hasn’t been without blowback.
This year in Boston, where similar rules were implemented in 2009, cab drivers have filed suit against private fleet owners and the city of Boston for state employment violations, claiming that because of exorbitant shift fees and harsh city regulations, they have been wrongly classified as independent contractors instead of employees. Those Boston drivers, who do not own their own cars, are responsible for shift fees as well as gas, tolls, insurance and other costs of doing business. After earning a few hundred bucks during a shift, the drivers complain that they are left with very little after satisfying fees and other costs. The plaintiffs, who filed the lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court, are seeking class-action status on behalf of hundreds of shift drivers who make up the vast majority of licensed cabdrivers in Boston. If they are successful, it could dramatically change how taxi drivers are compensated and transfer much of the cost of operating the taxi to the fleet owner.
In another case in 2010, the Boston Taxi Owners Association filed a $1 million lawsuit against the city of Boston over the rules surrounding credit card machines in cabs. The credit card machines are connected by satellite to meters. When the card machine is down, a driver’s meter is also automatically disabled, preventing drivers from making any money until the card machine is repaired. At the very least, taxi owners sought to get a 48-hour grace period to make needed repairs to the credit card devices before their meters were disabled.
Even if the local taxi industry won’t face some of the same reverberations being felt in Boston, many here simply believe the new rules are unnecessary, go too far and will not have the desired impact city leaders have touted publicly.
With high profile cases involving cab drivers who have been the victim of robberies and even murder, few dispute that the cab business is a dangerous one, but Coleman and other drivers harbor serious doubts that car security cameras will stop criminals from targeting cab drivers.
“If a security camera won’t stop a joker from holding up a bank in broad daylight, why is it going to stop someone from robbing a cab,” quips one longtime local cab operator.
The cameras will likely prove as ineffective in preventing wrongdoing among drivers, Coleman says.
“If a driver is going to do something to a passenger, he will disable the camera or he won’t do it in the car.”
And Coleman does not buy into the city’s argument that the credit card machine will automatically result in increased fares and tips.
“That has yet to be seen,” he says. “That’s an individual thing based on who you pick up and when you pick them up. You might make more tips, but your overhead is greater, so you’re still operating at a loss. Only time will tell.”
As for the vehicle age limits, Coleman and many drivers contend that the age of the car is not nearly as important as its condition. Many of the drivers that are on the Coleman line own their own cars, he says. And they take pride in them. This year, all cabs are required to be no more than 11 years old. By 2014, the age limit will be drop to seven years.
“Most of our drivers in New Orleans are the working ill, semi-retired, part-timers and students. That’s basically 70 percent to 80 percent of (our drivers). And the other guys are full-timers that put in 12-14 hours a day,” Coleman says, adding that this differs greatly from larger cities where a fleet car is 24 hours a day by shift drivers. “Our cars don’t take that kind of beating. And 98 percent of our drivers own their cars. Our drivers take a vested interest. When you own your own car, you take care of it because it’s yours. If every seven years you’re buying a new car, you spending the money you’re making.”
“We’ve seen it already”
Local cab drivers are also bothered by the city’s move to designate the CPNC numbers as a privilege, as opposed to a property right. CPNC holders have paid tens of thousands of dollars for the numbers; and they have been historically used as an investment, with some drivers renting the number out after they retire to supplement income, selling it for a nest egg or even passing it on to heirs. With plans to overhaul the taxi industry, the city put a stop to the transfer of CPNC numbers last year.
“I know these guys spend a pretty penny for these numbers and I actually know a guy who was looking to pass his numbers down to a relative,” Coleman says, adding that by his estimation numbers that had been worth as much as $65,000 are now worth about half of that since the city introduced the new rules. Meanwhile, suspicions that the taxi industry overhaul has been about making space for new cab fleet owners appears to gain some traction when a recent Craigslist ad is considered.