Ordinance could pave way for ride-sharing services

Hailing a ride in Baton Rouge could get a lot easier if one of the hottest trends in the tech industry — ride-sharing services — are able to take advantage of a proposed city ordinance.

The services allow passengers to use smartphone apps to hail and pay for a ride, acting as booking services for drivers and their passengers.

Services such as Uber and Lyft have attracted a lot of attention from investors but also have drawn opposition from cab companies and local governments in many cities, including New Orleans, where a preemptive cease-and-desist order was issued in October by the taxicab bureau.

But in Baton Rouge, Metro Councilmen John Delgado and Ryan Heck have introduced a proposal that is designed to make it easier for the car-ride services to operate in the city.

“Our idea is to create a regulatory framework that is inviting to their business model and holds them to the same standards that our taxicab control board has in place,” Heck said. The measure was created in the hopes of attracting a ride-sharing company to Baton Rouge, he said.

Currently, to carry passengers in exchange for a fare in Baton Rouge, one must be a licensed cab driver approved by the taxicab commission. The amended ordinance would relax those requirements. It’s set for a public hearing at the June 25 Metro Council meeting.

Delgado said he hasn’t heard directly from cab company owners, but he understands they are “not really happy” with the proposal.

Uber, one of the best-known ride-sharing services, already is running ads on its website looking for drivers in Baton Rouge.

“We are excited about the potential opportunity to connect riders and drivers in Baton Rouge,” said Kaitlin Durkosh, an Uber spokeswoman.

The company operates in 128 cities across the world, recently entering Austin, Texas, Miami and Orlando, Florida. The value of the company has been pegged at $17 billion, thanks to major investments from banks and venture capital firms.

Ride-share services operating in Baton Rouge will be required to do background checks on potential drivers, inspect vehicles, establish zero-tolerance policies for drug and alcohol use and prohibit riders from “street hails” like a traditional taxi service.

Delgado said he became aware of Uber when he was on a business trip earlier this year. He was trying to get a ride from a friend’s house in metro Dallas to the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport but striking out with local cab companies. “I pressed a button on my phone and saw three or four minutes away, there were four Uber vehicles,” Delgado said. “It was amazing.”

Uber customers use a smartphone app to hail drivers and pay for the service with a credit card they have connected to their account. Lyft works in a similar way, and cars used by drivers have big pink mustaches on the front to make them easier for riders to see.

In New Orleans and other cities, cab companies have fought attempts by Uber to enter the market, saying the business has an unfair advantage. Cab companies in New Orleans must have an actual office and a fleet of at least two vehicles. Plus, they have to pay their employees.

Uber and Lyft don’t own any vehicles or employ drivers. They work as a booking service for approved drivers and transportation companies and collect a cut of each fare.

Uber drivers are subject to local, state and federal criminal background checks and ongoing reviews of their motor vehicle records.

Heck said there’s a “lot of pent-up demand” for ride-sharing services.

But local taxicab drivers aren’t thrilled about the idea.

Wallace Julien, a driver for Bayou Taxi and Airport Cab, said the taxi business is down in Baton Rouge, so more competition isn’t needed. “There’s no need for that,” said Julien, noting Thursday he was waiting two to three hours for a fare.

Representatives from Yellow Cab of Baton Rouge, the biggest local cab company, were unavailable for comment Thursday.

Delgado said by allowing ride-sharing companies to enter the market, more people would use paid transportation. The reason people aren’t riding cabs is that there are 101 licensed vehicles in East Baton Rouge Parish, meaning that waits of 45 minutes to an hour for a ride are common, he said.

“When Uber goes into effect, that will quadruple or quintuple the number of people giving rides,” he said, because drivers for ride-sharing services make more money.

And by increasing the amount of vehicles on the road, that will reduce the number of drunken drivers. “Every city where Uber goes in, they see DWI rates drop,” he said.

Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter @TCB_TheAdvocate