Council gives thumbs up to rideshare

Getting a ride in Baton Rouge is about to get a little easier.

The Metro Council on Wednesday voted in favor of ordinances allowing rideshare companies such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar into the Baton Rouge market, much to the dismay of local taxi industry representatives.

The ordinance change doesn’t go into effect until 12 days from Wednesday, unless Mayor-President Kip Holden signs it before then.

Brian Trascher, an Uber lobbyist, said he thinks it will take only a few weeks to get a fleet together. He said applications have been steady, “but not as heavy as they are in New Orleans.” Representatives from other rideshare companies were not present at the council meeting.

Ridesharing services allow passengers to use smartphone apps to hail rides from amateur drivers, often using their personal vehicles. Riders use their phones to pay with credit cards, with the company and the driver each taking a cut.

Ahead of the vote Wednesday, cab drivers lined up to tell the Metro Council that the new services are unfair to heavily regulated taxi drivers and unsafe for passengers.

“To give them carte blanche and eliminate them from all other regulations that other transportation companies have to abide by … is not only unfair but pretty illogical,” said Keith Wyckoff, manager of Yellow Cab Baton Rouge, the largest taxi provider in the parish.

Others cab drivers complained that the new services would spread demand for pickup services even thinner, cutting into their livelihoods.

Former cab driver Jessica Chandler said the Metro Council needs to balance the demands for public transportation with the needs of people who drive cabs to make a living, while ensuring its done in a regulated environment. Chandler also said waiting 30 minutes for a taxi in Baton Rouge is reasonable, and not indicative of a lack of capacity.

Cab drivers complained that rideshare drivers aren’t subject to the same level of background checks, driving record checks and car inspections conducted by the city and state that taxi and limo drivers are subjected to. Rideshare drivers only need a driver’s license and an individual insurance policy, compared with taxi drivers who also need a chauffeur license and a commercial insurance policy.

Thomas Hayes, general manager of Uber in New Orleans, told the Metro Council that its drivers are subject to rigorous background checks to ensure they are in good standing and qualified to drive.

“Our background checks are considered state of the art and top of the transportation industry,” Hayes said. “Ten percent of the taxi drivers taking our background check in Boston failed, and yet they’re all on the roads operating there (as taxi drivers).”

Hayes also said cities that allowed Uber into the market saw decreases in people being charged with driving under the influence of alcohol.

In Seattle, DUIs declined 10 percent after Uber entered the market, he said.

The ordinance changes were sponsored by Councilmen John Delgado and Ryan Heck.

Delgado said Baton Rouge is dramatically underserved by taxis, noting that Little Rock, Arkansas, has twice as many cabs; Austin, Texas, has three times as many cabs; and New Orleans has 16 times as many cabs as Baton Rouge.

Baton Rouge has about 150 cabs.

He also noted that city police cited about 1,200 people on DWI so far this year.

“Of course taxicabs don’t want this new industry,” he said. “Restaurants didn’t want food trucks to come to Baton Rouge, but we all see the good that comes with that.”

Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel said that in many cities where rideshare companies are successful, the cities imposed stringent requirements, like requiring commercial insurance policies or chauffeur licenses.

She also noted the various lawsuits filed in other parts of the country, and an incident in San Francisco where an Uber driver hit and killed a 6-year-old girl who was crossing the street.

“You say you reduce DUIs, but you all killed somebody through your company,” Banks-Daniel said.

The family of the girl is suing Uber for wrongful death, but Uber has maintained the driver was not on the clock during the time of the incident.

Councilman Scott Wilson said he agreed with the taxi drivers that the rules are unfair.

“The problem I got is regulation and a level playing field,” he said. He also said he doesn’t believe Uber’s insurance policies can adequately cover the drivers and passengers.

But Trascher said they have $1 million supplemental insurance policies for their drivers that kick in if the drivers’ personal insurance coverage fails.

Only Banks-Daniel and Wilson voted against allowing the rideshare companies into Baton Rouge. Trae Welch, Ronnie Edwards, Donna Collins-Lewis, C. Denise Marcelle, Buddy Amoroso, Tara Wicker, Ryan Heck and Delgado approved the measure. Joel BoƩ and Chandler Loupe were absent.

In other business, the Metro Council approved a $3.3 million budget supplement to fund, among other things, sidewalk construction, traffic-calming measures, fire department equipment, police uniforms and bus tickets to send homeless people to their families outside of the city.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz.

Editor’s note: This article was changed on February 26, 2014, to note that Jessica Chandler was a former cab driver and to paraphrase the point Chandler was making at the Metro Council. Chandler was quoted inaccurately in the original version of the article.