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Tourism chief wants newer, greener cabs; industry insists it’s too expensive



POSTED: 03:31 PM Wednesday, August 4, 2010
BY: Richard A. Webster, Staff Writer
TAGS: Alan Fisher, Green Taxi Co., Ike Spears, London Livery, Mitch Landrieu, National Customer Advisory Council, New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, Stephen Perry

Alan Fisher wants to create New Orleans’ first “green” cab company and in the process expose what he sees as the glaring weaknesses of the city’s existing taxi industry — unprofessional drivers operating broken down vehicles lacking the modern technology commonplace in every major city.

One of the main problems Fisher wants to address is the quality of the city’s cabs. All of Green Taxi Co.’s cars will be new and taken off the road after five years of service, an unheard of policy in the Big Easy, Fisher said.

New Orleans is one of the only major U.S. cities that doesn’t place a limit on the number of years a taxi can operate. City license records indicate there are cabs as old as 30 years operating in New Orleans.

Chicago law requires that cabs be put out of commission after four years. Five years is the limit in Las Vegas, Dallas and Minneapolis, and six years in Houston and Boston.

The National Customer Advisory Council brought the issue to the attention of Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, several years ago.

“They told us as customers who bring hundreds of millions of dollars to the city that we had not only a less-than-acceptable but a relatively poor overall taxi system compared with most of our major competitive set,” Perry said.

Once Mayor Mitch Landrieu gets settled, Perry said he plans to push for uniform standards within the local taxi industry including age limits on vehicles and mandatory driver training to ensure they are educated on the history, culture and attractions of the city.

“We need to raise the standards like we’ve done at the convention center, hotels, restaurants and airport,” Perry said. “We can’t have the entirety of the tourism industry moving forward and this one component in terms of taxis standing still.”

Attorney Ike Spears, who represents several of the city’s cab lines, rejects the idea of vehicle age limits. He says it’s economically unfeasible to demand drivers buy a new car every five years.

“People want our industry to look like San Francisco and New York,” Spears said. “Well, pay us what New York and San Francisco pay their drivers.”

Despite Spears’ assertions, initial fare charges and per-mile rates are comparable among New Orleans, New York and San Francisco, though vehicle leasing fees and gasoline surcharges may differ.

Spears doesn’t deny the taxi cab industry could be improved but is adamant it can’t be done by outsiders legislating changes.

“I don’t think they fully understand the nuts and bolts of what the taxi cab drivers go through on a day-to-day basis to try and make ends meet,” he said. “It’s a low-margin game. Most of these guys are self-employed trying to support themselves and their families.

“Everyone wants the industry to be better and more reflective of a positive experience for the tourists. But everybody also wants to be able to make a living to go home and support their families at the end of the day.”

As for the need for a green cab company, Spears doesn’t see it.

“I don’t think the guy catching a taxi cab from work to home is looking to see if the car is green or the company is green,” he said.

The Green Taxi Co. would consist of a fleet of hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles. The fleet would average 35 miles per gallon compared with 15 mpg for standard cabs and save an estimated $2 million in fuel costs annually, said Fisher, former owner of London Livery, a 25-year-old limousine service destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

The drivers, called “ambassadors,” would be trained according to London taxi system standards, which Fisher calls the “best and most professional in the world.”

Perry said one of the most frequent questions he fields from convention planners determining whether they want to come to the city is what type of green initiatives are in place.

“I can’t tell you what a huge selling plus it is,” he said. “Right now they’re giving New Orleans a little bit of grace because of Katrina. But it’s a real weakness and one we hope to address soon.”

Fisher is trying to do his part and said he has enough investors lined up to have his vehicles on the road by early 2011. But nearly all of the city’s 1,640 taxi licenses have been distributed. To purchase an existing permit, Fisher would have to pay up to $30,000.

He plans to petition the City Council to increase the number of taxi licenses or create a separate category for “green” taxis, two moves the cab industry is vehemently against.

But Fisher has Perry firmly in his corner, and the city’s top tourism official says the time is now to move the industry into a more environmentally conscious and innovative direction.

“There’s no question this will be a hard issue to resolve and it will be politically sensitive,” Perry said. “But we all need to come to the table and create a master plan and a target date. It cannot be overestimated what a powerful line of ambassadors taxi drivers can be either for the good or negative.”•

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