Pedicab success pivots on City Council opting for merit selection

By Alan Williams, The Lens contributing opinion writer |

Finally, New Orleans has joined the ranks of cities that permit pedal-powered cabs to carry residents and visitors around town. Soon, New Orleanians and tourists alike will be able to cruise Magazine Street, roll to the Superdome for a Saints game, or get from a downtown hotel to a downriver restaurant without setting foot in an automobile.

While this is a significant step in the right direction, the City Council has only authorized a one-year pilot program. In part that’s a concession to the opposition raised by mule-drawn buggy operators and the conventional taxi industry. On Thursday the City Council will make another critical decision regarding the future of pedicabs in New Orleans. After limiting the number of pedicab licenses to 45, the council must now decide whether to distribute permits based on merit or by random lottery. It is clear that citizens will be best served if the council opts in favor of a merit-based system.

With a cap on the number of licenses, there is no way for competition to ensure high-quality service. A lottery would do nothing to compensate for this suspension of market dynamics, and would risk leaving some of the best pedicab operators with no way to obtain a permit. A lottery would make New Orleanians more likely to get crummy service, when they can get service at all.

The Ground Transportation Bureau’s “Pedicab Procedures” document itself predicts significant competition from illegitimate operators. This is a candid admission that the authorized supply of licenses will not be sufficient to meet the demand – which will only grow as the industry matures and becomes more visible and predictable.

Some officials have pushed for a lottery-based system to avoid the potential for favoritism if operators are selected on merit. But the benefits of a high-quality pedicab fleet far outweigh the risk of perceived cronyism, which can be mitigated through a public commitment to transparency. Without a merit-based system, the nascent pedicab industry will underperform, thereby reducing public support and making it more vulnerable to renewed opposition as the pilot program ends.

Arguments that a merit-based system unduly raises barriers to entry are also based on a valid concern. After all, pedicabs represent a new sector of employment for New Orleanians who may lack the formal education required by many other professions. But these concerns are best addressed at the close of the pilot program, when the number of available licenses can be increased.

During the early stages of the city’s pedicab operations, the city should do everything in its power to ensure that demand for the service is met by the highest-quality operators, and that the market is not stunted or eroded by poor performance.

A healthy pedicab industry will be a boon to the New Orleans economy by providing a more efficient form of transportation in the city’s historic core. It will get more customers through the doors of local businesses and provide a significant number of new jobs, further enhancing New Orleans post-Katrina reputation as a center of progressive, forward-looking ideas.

Our elected representatives have a role to play in nurturing this industry by supporting a merit-based allocation of operating permits. And after the pilot program has ended, let’s expand the number of licenses available so that our pedicab industry truly thrives.

Alan Williams is a volunteer at Transport for NOLA and the community manager at Neighborland, an online tool through which residents can discuss businesses and services they want and learn how to navigate city processes necessary to get them.

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  • The devil is in the details of how a merit-based selection process would work, details that are lacking in this editorial. One person’s “merit based” is another person’s “favoritism. Maybe it is a matter of first come first served and prevent any individual from taking over the whole service. Establish the number of pedicabs the market can handle — and make sure a number of players are given fair shake instead of just tossing 100 permit to one guy who is deemed by whomever under arbitrary “merit” qualifiers.

    Also: Establishing pedicab service is a good idea, however the traffic situation in the city is a mess and nobody is going to want to ride in the back of something with a bunch of cars whizzing angrily past the slow pedicab, inches away from elbows and knees. Horse before carriage, people. Calm the traffic, then people might enjoy a pedicab ride up Esplanade to City Park or from the CBD to Audubon Park. Otherwise it’s just going to end up being localize FQ service that competes directly with the carriage people: pedicabs cruising around the tiny FQ area in little circles.

  • Roland Solinski

    I don’t really understand how this works. Who decides who the “highest-quality” operators are? What objective standard are the operators held to? Will the city need to employ inspectors to mystery-shop or spot-check pedicab operators?

    The lottery makes the most sense to me because it’s resistant to corruption, and it doesn’t require a lot of bureaucracy to implement. What’s the worst that can happen from a “poor-quality” pedicab operator anyway?

  • @nolation – We definitely need to calm traffic, but I think this city can walk and chew gum at the same time. Transportation alternatives will have the most impact by deploying them as soon as possible.

    @nolation and @Roland, the details of a merit-based system are definitely of interest, and could be worse if not created, refined, and applied transparently. There is no reason why the city can’t be completely open about the process.

  • Jimbeaux


    I agree that merit-based, conceptually at least, is going to be better for the pedicabs to gain public acceptance rather than the risk of turning into a mess if some hair brained bike enthusiast with no business skills decides they want to give it a try. That said, I did have to laugh at your implication that there is a cohort of experienced pedicab operators in our midst a-la “some of the best pedicab operators with no way to obtain a permit”. I think it’s fair to say that no one in this city has operated such a business, legally, so it stands to reason to assume all are equally inexperienced.

    However! It seems to me that whether the selection process be merit based or lottery, the requirements of things such as insurance, personal assets of some amount, an occupational license, registration of the business with the state and city agencies, and some type of drivers-ed type something or other, most of which seems to already be a requirement to enter the lottery, can be seen as a partially merit based selection system and a lottery then to select out of the pool of pre-qualified and equally viable parties. This should sufficiently filter out the long hairs and the loons, and will ensure that only people serious about the business will be eligible either way. Hell, are there even 45 different people in this town who can demonstrate that they have pedicab warehousing capabilities (which is one of the requirements). I know it seems unfair to have people go through all of that trouble but most of it does not cost any money and the parts that do are definitely necessary to start/run a business. With the additional requirements such as uniforms, inspections, reporting, etc. it seems to me that the concern that there will be bad pedicab operators as a result of the ‘random’ selection process is unlikely (though I do fully expect there to be bad operators, but there certainly would have been even if it had been merit based). Again, there really is no metric by which to measure folks anyway, since this has never been done here before, so the viability and feasibility demonstration of the basic business requirements are the best we have.

    What was your merit based suggestion going to be, a race?