The Times-Picayune: A new industry was born Thursday in New Orleans. After a brief afternoon news conference with city officials in the 700 block of Decatur Street, next to Jackson Square, vehicles of the city's three new pedicab companies began traveling around the French Quarter and nearby neighborhoods, looking for customers.
The pedal-powered rickshaws are already familiar sights in many U.S. cities, but Mayor Mitch Landrieu said adding them to New Orleans will keep the city "on the leading edge of transportation in the country."
The pedicabs' debut came just over a year after the City Council first voted to allow them to pick up paying customers in the city. The council voted on Sept. 2, 2010, to allow 45 of the new vehicles to operate during a trial period of 12 to 24 months, after which the city will decide whether to keep the limit at 45 or expand it to 65. During the trial period, each operator can have up to 15 of the 45 permits.
The law says the pedicabs can operate almost anywhere in the city, though operators are expected to concentrate in the French Quarter, Central Business District and perhaps Uptown, such as on Magazine Street or around Tulane and Loyola universities.
The law sets a basic fare of $5 per passenger for the first six blocks of a trip, plus $1 per passenger for each additional block.
A series of procedural snafus and legal challenges by taxi and carriage owners fearful of competition repeatedly delayed the new industry's launch after the council's 2010 vote, climaxed by a dispute this year between the City Council and the Landrieu administration over whether to pick the operators through a merit system or a lottery.
The administration favored a lottery, arguing that it was impossible to find meaningful criteria by which to choose among applicants for a brand new industry, and it won the day. The lottery was held Aug. 12, with about 40 companies applying for the right to operate 15 pedicabs each.
The three winners were Bike Taxi Unlimited, owned by Rob Lynch; Need a Ride LLC, owned by Evan Alford; and NOLA Pedicabs LLC, owned by Vincent Marcello. Their selection meant that none of the would-be entrepreneurs who led the campaign to get pedicabs authorized in New Orleans will have an ownership stake in the new industry, at least during the initial trial period.
Rob Lynch is the brother of P.J. Lynch, who was among the first and most persistent advocates for legalizing pedicabs in New Orleans. Rob Lynch said his brother, who submitted a separate application in the lottery, will be renting a vehicle from him but is not an owner of Bike Taxi Unlimited.
Lynch's company already has all 15 of its pedicabs, which cost about $3,800 apiece. The other two companies have about half a dozen each and expect to get the rest by the end of the month. All three companies are looking to hire more drivers.
Marcello said he expects to hire 50 to 60 drivers, who will staff two or 2 1/2 eight-hour shifts. He said he expects to have his vehicles on the streets almost around the clock. Besides being "strong and healthy," he said, his drivers need to be articulate and good "ambassadors for the city."
Although he is a novice to the ground transportation industry, Marcello said, he is a veteran of the hospitality industry, owning bars and restaurants such as Maximo's, and he wants to bring the same customer-friendly attitude to the new business.
Alford, also a newcomer to the industry, said he expects to hire about 100 people, who he said must be "fun, outgoing, energetic, fit and knowledgeable about the area." His first driver, he said, came to New Orleans from Newport, R.I.
Bike Taxi's website says it will offer its services "to the residents and tourists of the French Quarter, Marigny, Central Business District, Warehouse District and Uptown. In the future, we will look to expand our business to other parts of the city, including Mid-City, Bywater and the Garden District."
Mike Tifft, an attorney for a group of carriage and tour companies who tried to block what they see as new competition for tourist dollars, said he has not ended his fight.
"We are still looking into the curious circumstances of the pedicab permit lottery," Tifft said this week. "It appears obvious from records recently provided to us that some applicants submitted multiple applications using proxies or straw men to successfully increase their chances. Frankly, we assumed that the city would throw out the results and make a clean start of it."
A company called Turtle Taxi began operating five pedicabs in New Orleans in 1999 but shut down a year later because city officials refused to let the vehicles operate in the French Quarter. Then-Mayor Marc Morial said a study had concluded that the vehicles would hinder traffic on the Quarter's narrow streets and could endanger passengers.
The owners of Turtle Taxi later filed a federal lawsuit alleging city officials put them out of business because they refused to take on a partner with connections to Morial. Morial and others denied the allegations, and a trial on the lawsuit resulted in a hung jury in 2002.