After a friend’s cranky uncle shouted me down on Facebook while Uber was breaking into the New Orleans market, I knew I had my work cut out for me in writing a book about cab driving culture in our evolving economy. His perennial riff was that the city had conspired with the taxi cab companies. We’ve insufficient streetcars not because of cost effectiveness, he averred, but because the wolf of corruption always scratches at our politicians’ doors; taxi moguls paid to keep streetcars off the streets in order to make a buck off those who couldn’t catch one.
In a city where the police formed a queue in front of City Hall on Fridays for their pay-offs as recently as the 1980s, it can be hard to argue for the defendants. Even a month or so later, when long-planned reconstruction on the old St. Claude streetcar line finally began, his perspective hadn’t budged by so much as a trolley stop.
Newspaper commentary on ride-sharing articles over the past couple of years demonstrates the same hallucinatory disenfranchisement with our transportation system. Little of that commentary has demonstrated a working knowledge of the taxi industry. No one knows before climbing into my cab what full-time drivers are. We’re standard-issue in Nola. One company with a whopping fleet of six cars still uses the 12-hour system of dividing cabbies into day and night shift drivers. Yet few know that, along with keeping the cab 24/7, I don’t get a paycheck or a percentage of the meter. Fewer still grok that independent contractor status isn’t a dodge unique to the newly-minted “transportation network companies” or TNCs. Taxi moguls had been ducking employee taxes, worker benefits, and OSHA safety regulations long before Danny DeVito played Louie to a miserly tee.
A cab company that won’t credit me $60 for a lost day of work because my car was in the shop doesn’t shell out money to a city’s transportation department to make sure that we eat better. There’s a cap on the number of licenses, which means there’s a cap on the number of drivers, and cab companies collect their dues whether we’re living on expired dollar store ramen or the market-price catch du jour. Most of us live somewhere in the middle.
But try explaining to the fast-food worker, the one who just paid you three hours’ wages to go one way, that taxis were never meant for the lower classes. Her parish has an unreliable, badly designed bus system. We’re a public utility, but also for-hire and a world apart from the public transportation system that has failed her so miserably. Try telling her that I rent the cab weekly for a swank monthly apartment price. There are still people left in this country whose cost of living isn’t as high as $1480 to $1850 a month. I’m one of them — but, again, try telling her that. That’s how I can afford to drive a cab — that, and I’m not inclined toward lifestyle pitfalls.
I used to have a two-to-three drink limit, but now that I’m a vegetarian, I rarely have more than one and I avoid the hazards of the drive-thru. Since I practice yoga and run, I get more exercise than horse-betting and dice-throwing provide. I have no addictions, nor multiple girlfriends calling me at all hours for rides, stressing me out. I also don’t have to rely on a bus system that’s going to rob me of two to six hours every day, time I wouldn’t even have to waste if I had a second job — because I drive a cab.
Philosophically speaking, at our brain’s reptilian core, cab drivers are the gambler reptiles. We borrow against our health, our time, our retirement, our safety and well-being, all for the instant gratification and relief of cash. When we were kids, most of us used to poke payphone coin return slots for loose change. Now we do the same with popular bars, restaurants, hotels, and entertainment spots, just waiting to come up in the black with a couple of quarters. That’s the game. You try to maximize your fuel efficiency, time, and hourly take because it’s the only way you can minimize your losses.
The same reptilian gray matter that motivates drivers motivates those who profit from them. A fleet of 100 cars in the Jefferson Parish suburb of Metairie, for example, brings in over $150,000 a month from dues alone. Toss in administrative fees on credit card and charge account transactions, and that number sails to an unknowable number easily north of $2 million a year. With numbers like that it’s not hard to see how, with few regulations, small family businesses can appear mogul-like, yet become dinosaurs.
I worked under the auspices of the largest taxi fleet Jefferson Parish has to offer for four years before I decided to try my luck across the street. Between August of 2011 and June 2015, their fleet rotated between around 90 to 120 drivers or so at a time. A lot of people can’t hack the hours. Some would make the mistake of coming in as the tourists were leaving. The only reason I kept my cab in the dead of August? Incredibly low overhead. A friend let me care for her dogs in lieu of rent and for the first six months of learning the ropes, I only had to worry about my phone, student loans, and a third of a utility payment. Had I had a mortgage, a kid, a personal vehicle, or pets of my own, I probably wouldn’t have made it.
That cab company also had years to prepare for the influx of the TNCs. Yet their only effort at being competitive consisted of signing up with an app that had some visibility and usage in Charlotte and New York, and which wanted to rely on driver word-of-mouth for their advertising here. The buggy app was eventually discarded, but not before management got an earful from the drivers.
When the concept of ride-sharing came along, the idea itself was brilliant, as full of possibilities as AirBnb. The bed and breakfast app is a hot potato topic in New Orleans, but our service workers would be worse off without it. When people coming for Jazz Fest are quoted $500 to $1000 a night for a no-frills hotel room, they opt to stay with residents. They rent bikes. They spread out all over the city instead of congesting the scant half square mile of the French Quarter. They come back and make our summers less lean.
Had ride-sharing companies kept to the disruptive spirit of sharing culture, we wouldn’t see the curious income projections Uber throws at its potential, hapless workers. Before they were green-lit, the lure was $22/hour, about three dollars an hour higher than published on the website at the hour of this writing. The concept of driving more or less whenever you were going to be driving anyway went out the window. People pack up and go to California to drive for Uber. The concept devolved from sharing rides at leisure to gold rush, mentality-driven, full-time driving. Occasionally, one of my passengers tries to get me to join the migration. He has a cousin; we’ll all share a house…
In a city where the number of taxi licenses are based on both population and number of hotel rooms, changes were necessary once AirBnb caught on. Perhaps the only group of people for whom TNCs are a part-time job are New Orleans’ largest class of migrant worker, film people from out of town. Trawling for Uber during mandatory union downtime on shoots in our production-heavy city, they simply reset their GPS locations from L.A. to LA. It doesn’t matter that they’re not residents. It’s hard to gauge from the outside whether or not Uber keeps up with the age of its drivers’ cars, currency of insurance policies, or driving records. But it’s safe to say that if a car registered in, say, Orange County can log in and take people in a strange city from Points A to B without interference or repercussions of any kind, then it probably isn’t under a lot of scrutiny. It’s the TNC equivalent of a cab company in one parish pretending not to know anything about its drivers picking up in other parishes, in places they’re not licensed. The difference is that now any vehicle from someplace else with lower standards can infiltrate the city undetected, adding to our emissions, congestion, and impatience.
When Uber began in 2009, they took 5 percent of the rides, or what Orleans Parish cab drivers pay on credit card sales if they don’t use card readers. Now it’s 20 percent or 25 percent depending upon the market, and rumors have it that they’re heading towards 30 percent. That’s an homage to the tightfisted greed of some taxi companies which collect the same no matter what the weather, technical difficulties, condition of the car, health of the driver, or cost of fuel.
When native Californian Barbara Ann Berwick pointed out what taxi drivers have known for years, she sued Uber and was compensated as an employee would be for expenses to bring her wage up to the California minimum. Self-employed for years — and well-versed in how to win lawsuits — Barbara Ann had the kind of capital required to win before she decided to try her litigating hand with Uber. Most don’t. Dues go up whether the taxi bureau raises the meter or not. But that’s not what’s appalling. What’s appalling — in any parish, because they’re all the same in this respect — is that no one is regulating the gas mileage of any of the cabs or TNC vehicles. Although I put one to three hundred miles on my car every day I work, I still have to drive a Crown Victoria that averages 16 miles to the gallon in town and no more than 23 on the highway. What sorry work for an environmentalist.
The only way I’ve been able to justify my participation in this absurd misuse of resources is to take summers off to write full-time, relying on foot, bicycle, and bus travel for those four months. That’s the beauty of being a renter vs. being an owner. I’m not shackled to a needy, costly vehicle to carry me to an under-paying and/or under-employing job. I put in the extra hours throughout the tourism season, sometimes as many as 80 hours a week, and let my frugality with my overhead pay my way through summertime, often including a real vacation. It’s not a long-term solution, but it’s okay.
If you pay any attention to meme culture on the social media, it would appear that the number of people who have accepted that climate change is real is small. My cab experiences tell me something else, that even dyed-in-the-wool conservatives from Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Mississippi have noticed something’s wrong with the planet. Two years ago they might have blamed meteorologists, but more now see that such a long losing streak with billion-dollar technology must mean something is up. With changing views, surely regulatory power can and will be on the rise in the near future. But almost no one who is buying a car to drive for Uber Black or taking their Uber X vehicle to the car wash is thinking of that. They are thinking of the ads which present artificial incomes across all transportation sectors, including its own. Some of those numbers are as impossible to know as the real net worth of an unregulated business not publicly traded in David Duke’s home parish. I don’t know how much my fellow cab drivers make. I can only guesstimate. My own numbers aren’t even consistent from year to year. Sometimes they go up in a given month. Sometimes they go down. Sometimes nothing in a given time frame changes except my ability to work more and spend less, thereby saving more for later.
Right now Orleans Parish is holding onto one regulatory thread where fossil fuel emissions are concerned — in order to register a car here with any TNC or as a cab, it has to be less than seven years old. If U.S. standards were higher, that would be something. Every car should be emissions-free by now. Every bus should be burning natural gas, not refined petroleum. Every streetcar that can possibly be on the street should be — and they can make more. The French Quarter should be limited to pedestrians, pedi-cab drivers, Segway tours, and cyclists. Cab and TNC culture should be forced to shrink as people are encouraged to step away from the curb, towards alternative forms of tourist travel.
A robust version of HopStop, an app whose extensive mapping and alternative transportation data were subsumed by Apple before announcing that it would become defunct in October 2015, should be common use for people in urban and suburban areas everywhere. “You take the Streetcar from Elysian Fields, down St. Claude, to Rampart and Common, where you can rent a bicycle to take you down Tulane, all the way to the airport. Return the bicycle before hopping your plane by locking it into one of our kiosks there.”
There’s no bicycle rental place yet at Rampart and Common Streets, but there should be. I think they’d have to tear a monument down. That’s a bit of a hot potato topic in the city, too, but we’re already doing it by turning our backs on the cab driver. It’s just that sometimes people forget that not all monuments are made of stone. Sometimes they’re simply institutions that have failed to progress. The scary part isn’t the invention or innovation that replaces it so much as when people fail to understand why the monument was there and what its implications and repercussions augured in the first place. Along came the new boss, the same as the old boss, and we all just queued up, took the pay-off, and signed up.
Jo Custer is a star-gazing workaholic bent on publishing, public speaking, and helping mistreated women find their inner strength, their voices, and their power. She and her amazing black cat Heart live in New Orleans and jump around a lot while not sleeping or working.