The ridesharing company Uber has gotten a mixed reception in Louisiana. WWNO's Malorie Marshall has been following the company’s foray into New Orleans, where politicians and members of the taxi industry have been resistant.
Meanwhile, Baton Rouge has seized on the opportunity, quickly passing an ordinance that allowed Uber to get rolling in the capitol city in July. A couple weeks later, I opened up Uber’s app on my smartphone to see if I could catch a ride.
I tried several times in the same day to order a car with the app, but nothing. An Uber spokesperson told me they’re racing to catch up with the outsized demand in Baton Rouge. So, why didn’t I just hail a cab instead? Well, that can be just as difficult.
When the Baton Rouge Area Chamber did a comparison with other metro areas, it found Baton Rouge was underserved when it came to taxi cabs. Right now, about 150 cabs operate for a population of about 440,000 people. The study shows the city-parish could use about 50 more.
Baton Rouge resident John Worrell says when he calls a cab to go bar-hopping, it could take 45 minutes to an hour for a cab to show up, if it even shows up at all.
"So you’ve used cab service in Baton Rouge before?" I ask him
"More than once, and every time it’s just been awful," Worrell says. "And that’s your only alternative, besides obviously driving drunk. Or - I mean, I guess that’s what people really use cabs here in Baton Rouge.”
The other primary reason Baton Rougeans want cabs is, of course, to get to the metro airport. For now, Uber drivers are not allowed to pick up or drop off passengers there. But they’re currently working out a deal with the airport commission, so the service should be available soon.
Metro Councilman John Delgado says he knows these needs aren’t being met by cab companies. So Delgado and his fellow councilman Ryan Heck reached out to Uber. Delgado says bringing them here was a no-brainer, especially because of the technology the ridesharing outfit brings with it.
"I would love to see a Baton Rouge Yellow Cab app that you can put on your phone and you could press the button and see where all the yellow cabs are, and if there’s one closer to you than an uber car, you can choose that instead," Delgado says. "I think that that’s the kind of development that hopefully we’ll see from the cab companies here in Baton Rouge and again, competition is better for the consumer."
Heck and Delgado actually reached out to a handful of ridesharing companies, including Lyft and Sidecar. Uber was the first one to jump at the opportunity. Delgado says the others are waiting to see how Uber does here.
“All we did was create a legal framework that was friendly to that type of company, and they came to Baton Rouge," Delgado says.
So I gave Uber one more shot. And this time the app found one car near me! I booked a ride with driver Nicole McGee. It took her 22 minutes to show up. She told me to get in the front seat.
Nicole and I took a ride around the block and on the way I asked her how many Uber drivers she thinks there are in Baton Rouge right now.
“I want to say there’s about maybe 25 now,” she says.
In New Orleans, Uber drivers like McGee are not getting a chance to enter the market. At least not yet.
Taxi cab companies and professional drivers in New Orleans have blocked Uber’s arrival. So, on a rainy afternoon in the city, only one Uber vehicle is out. And Uber’s Louisiana General Manager Tom Hayes is inside, handing out ice cream.
It’s a promotion for the company. Instead of showing up to give you a ride, they bring you a sweet treat and spread the word about Uber, while drumming up support.
Amy lives in the Audubon area. She’s been reading about the Uber controversy and was happy to get her ice cream.
“Yeah, New Orleans is a town where you gotta be able to get around without driving yourself all the time and, uh, having another option like Uber would be great,” she says.
People feel strongly about Uber. The Twitter hashtag #NOLANeedsUber has been gaining traction. One tweeter sees a parallel with another city struggle. Quote: “Just like with NOLA food trucks, NOLA City Hall is now trying to stifle progress by restricting Uber. #NOLAneedsUber” A Change.org petition to allow Uber into New Orleans had over 2,400 signatures at the time of this story. This is no surprise to Uber’s Louisiana General Manager Tom Hayes.
“Uber helps connects riders and drivers through an app in almost a magical way,” Hayes says.
Baton Rouge got Uber X. That allows drivers to use their personal vehicles to pick up customers. In New Orleans, the taxi industry fears Uber in any form is a gateway to unregulated drivers entering the market. Here, Uber X isn’t even on the table, at least not yet. And cab company owner Sheree Kerner feels New Orleans doesn’t need Uber at all. Mobile apps for taxis would be just as good.
“Once everybody gets used to used to the fact that I can simply use an app, well then that’s going to be ‘been there done that,’” Kerner says. Kerner owns Nawlins Cab. She says instead of greenlighting Uber, the city could work to make taxis just as efficient.
This week, New Orleans City Council will hear arguments for Uber Black. That’s the company’s professional luxury car service. Uber’s Louisiana General Manager Tom Hayes hopes that meeting will lead to Uber offering rides in New Orleans, not just ice cream.