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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

After three-hour meeting, City Council transportation committee moves Uber legislation forward without recommendation

Posted By on Tue, Jul 29, 2014 at 5:46 PM

click to enlarge A T-shirt in support of Uber in Louisiana, seen at the New Orleans City Council hearing on hail-a-car apps. - JEANIE RIESS
  • A T-shirt in support of Uber in Louisiana, seen at the New Orleans City Council hearing on hail-a-car apps.

The New Orleans City Council's Transportation and Airport Committee voted today to move forward legislation that would allow Uber and other hail-a-cab apps like it to the full council — but stopped short of making a recommendation. 

The three-hour long meeting was rife with tension between the taxi and limo lobbies and supporters of Uber, the San Francisco-based company that connects drivers to passengers through its smartphone platform. 

Uber advocates sported t-shirts with the words "Uber: I'm on board" typed inside a hollow outline of the state of Louisiana, while taxi lobbyists dressed in bright green T-shirts that read "Cab Drivers for Justice." The real heat, however, came from councilmembers concerned about the city's ability to regulate Uber Black, the company's proposed service and whatever Uber hopes to bring to New Orleans afterward — namely UberX, the company's ridesharing service that's a major competitor for traditional taxis in other cities.
The proposed legislation, drafted in part by Ryan Berni and Eric Granderson, both of Mayor Mitch Landrieu's office, would eliminate a three-hour minimum on for-hire vehicles and would adjust the pricing so that such vehicles can charge by the mile and minute. It would also add language to specify the arrangement of such cars via smartphone app. 

The meeting was almost a mirror image of the same one held last month, at which a vote on the legislation was deferred to July. The same players stood up and made the same points, with the discussion boiling down once again to UberX and the city's lack of resources to enforce any kind of regulation on it.

Justin Kintz, Uber's national policy director, joined local general manager Tom Hayes at the podium. Kintz couldn't confirm for Councilwoman Susan Guidry that UberX would not illegally enter New Orleans. The concern, as cited by Guidry, Councilmembers Stacy Head and James Gray and nearly a dozen members of the public, is that UberX would operate without any city regulation — allowing drivers to pick up passengers without having passed a rigorous background check, for example, or without significant driving experience. Head remarked that you can't even get a haircut in Louisiana from someone who isn't licensed by the state, and getting in someone's car should be no different. 

Head proposed immobilizing vehicles breaking the law, as opposed to throwing illegal Uber X drivers in jail. 

click to enlarge Former Taxi Bureau Chief Malachi Hull testified before the committee. - JEANIE RIESS
  • Former Taxi Bureau Chief Malachi Hull testified before the committee.

Former Taxi Bureau Chief Malachi Hull, famous for his resistance to Uber before being let go from his post earlier this month, likened UberX to hitchhiking. More significant, perhaps, was the limo companies' steady opposition to Uber. "We have an ordinance no one can work with,"  said Michael Brinks of American Luxury Limousines. "The number of cars available wouldn't work. There aren't enough cars in the New Orleans market."  

Local attorney Yvette D'Aunoy, who spoke in opposition to Uber, claimed the company has no intention of using Uber Black in New Orleans. "This is a wolf in sheep's clothing," she said. "Uber X is where the money is … what you're going to have is Tulane students making money for their Jazz Fest tickets. How safe is that?" She went on to say that she would not want her teenage daughters getting in the car with drivers who weren't approved by the city. "Your job is to pass laws and legislation that protect these people," she said. 

Guidry closed her comments for the day with a careful reflection of her often severe lines of questioning. "I know I've come down hard on Uber, but it's because you disregard the law and come off as really arrogant," she said. "I support this technology. The technology is here and I want it … But the citizens would not be screaming for this the way they are if the taxis were operating the way they should."

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