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.