City Councilwoman Kristen Palmer at a May 20, 2021 City Council meeting. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The New Orleans City Council will consider an ordinance that would permanently cap the number of pedicab permits at the current level of 45. The move would cement the market control of the city’s three pedicab companies, who have claimed all of those permits since they were first awarded in 2011

The ordinance comes as a disappointment to Bourbon Street Bike Taxi, a newly formed company that hoped to shake up the pedicab industry by functioning as a “worker cooperative.” The company’s website accuses the three existing pedicab firms of unfair labor practices, including forcing drivers to pay unreasonable bike rental fees in order to work a shift.

During a Wednesday meeting of the council’s Transportation Committee, some pedicab drivers and supporters of Bourbon Street Bike Taxi accused Councilwoman Kristin Palmer, who sponsored the ordinance, of using her last few days in office to protect the financial interests of a select few businessmen, some of whom donated to her political campaigns. (Palmer recently lost an election for at-large council member, and will step down from the council next week.)

The 2010 law that first allowed pedicabs to hit New Orleans’ streets — which was also sponsored by Palmer — created a limit of 65 pedicab permits, 20 more than are currently issued. That 65-permit limit still exists in the law today. 

However, the 2010 law also established a pilot period, during which only 45 total permits could be released. That pilot period was only supposed to last two years at most. But it turns out it never officially ended.

Palmer’s new ordinance would finally terminate the pilot program after more than a decade, while reducing the permanent cap from 65 permits to 45. 

Palmer told The Lens that she wasn’t even aware that the pilot period was still active until Bourbon Street Bike Taxi tried to get a foothold in the industry.

“Quite frankly I had no idea that it had never become permanent until recently,” she said. “It came to our attention because there were folks that wanted to have more licenses given out.”

Bourbon Street Bike Taxi formed in 2020 and was authorized as a pedicab operator by the city’s Ground Transportation Bureau in January 2021. But the company’s progress stalled when it tried to get the individual permits needed for each pedicab — called certificates of public necessity and convenience, or CPNCs. 

The city denied the request, claiming that the maximum 45 CPNCs were already claimed. In July, Bourbon Street Bike Taxi appealed the decision in Civil District Court, claiming the law actually allowed for more than 45 CPNCs. That case is still pending. 

Palmer said her ordinance was not about stifling competition. She said the intent was to finally make the pedicab program permanent. She said that keeping the cap at 45 CPNCs would avoid flooding the streets with more vehicles than the market could absorb, while being fair to the businesses that have had to endure nearly two years of the coronavirus pandemic and the related downturn in the tourism economy. 

She said that beyond just the pandemic, things have changed significantly since 2010 when the law was first passed, including the introduction of ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft and the city’s bike-share service.

A consistent policy priority for Palmer over her years on the City Council has been preventing the city, and in particular the French Quarter, from being overwhelmed by tourism-related vehicles. She has, for example, led efforts to ban duck-boats, electric scooters and “pedal pubs.” 

“The use of our public streets deserves a higher level of scrutiny,” Palmer said on Wednesday.

As a compromise measure on the pedicab ordinance, Palmer offered an amendment that calls for a market study to determine whether there is room for more pedicab operators. But under the proposed amendment, that study can’t be done until 2024 at the earliest. The study can only be done two years after the ordinance is passed and “when Chair of Transportation Committee and Ground Transportation Bureau determines city hospitality industry has economically recovered from Covid-19.”

Palmer said that she wanted the city’s hard-hit tourism industry to return to normalcy before the city tried to analyze it.

But supporters of Bourbon Street Bike Taxi saw the move as a clear attempt to block their efforts and protect the interests of the three existing pedicab companies: NOLA Pedicabs, Bike Taxi Unlimited and Need A Ride. 

During the meeting’s public comment period, some former and current pedicab workers lodged complaints against those companies. A central issue was related to the rental fees that drivers need to pay the pedicab companies every time they work. Some said it was unfair that pedicab companies could set their rental fees at any rate they wanted, while the city strictly controlled how much drivers could charge customers. 

Some also accused Palmer of favoring her political donors. 

Campaign finance records show that NOLA Pedicabs donated $1,250 to Palmer’s campaign in April 2021. NOLA Pedicab’s owner, Vincent Marcello, made a small $250 donation to Palmer’s campaign in 2013. Another of Marcello’s companies, Vincenzo Properties, donated office space valued at $5,000 to Palmer’s at-large campaign in 2021.

A company owned by Patrick Lynch, the brother of Bike Taxi Unlimited owner Robert Lynch, has donated $6,000 to Palmer since late 2017.  While Patrick Lynch’s name doesn’t appear in Louisiana business filings for the company, he is involved in the pedicab business. His LinkedIn profile lists him as a manager of Bike Taxi Unlimited, and his name appears on state business filings for a company registered under the same name in Georgia, where he appears to operate it under the name Royal Bike Taxi.

None of the three companies immediately responded to requests for comment. 

An 11-year pilot program

The original 2010 law authorizing pedicabs called for an initial pilot period to give the city insight into how to design the permanent program. It was originally supposed to last for a maximum of two years, at which time the Grounds Transportation Bureau would advise the council on whether to keep the cap at 45 or raise it. 

In 2013, the city’s Ground Transportation Bureau issued a report recommending the council increase the maximum number of permits to 75, even higher than the 65 envisioned in the original law. 

The report said that the existing three companies could hold onto their permits, but that the additional 30 should specifically go to new companies to encourage competition. The process for issuing the 30 new permits would also help encourage industry participation from minority and women-owned businesses. 

At two council meetings in 2013, the existing three pedicab companies railed against the recommendation, arguing that issuing more permits would oversaturate the market with pedicabs, resulting in lower profits, worse pay for drivers and unnecessary congestion in the French Quarter. 

Some French Quarter residents and businesses also argued against lifting the cap to avoid potential congestion. 

At an August 2013 meeting, Eric Granderson, Landreu’s director of local government affairs, said that if the City Council decided to keep the cap at 45 permits, the city had the option to strip the existing permits away from the three companies who held them, and re-award them through a process that would encourage more participation from disadvantaged business enterprises, generally woman- or minority-owned companies. 

The Landrieu administration offered an ordinance to raise the cap and make the program permanent. But the council never acted on it. Instead, it kept voting to extend the pilot program. The seventh and final pilot extension approved by the council in 2014 didn’t include a firm expiration date. Instead, it just said that the pilot “shall be in effect until amended by ordinance of the council.”

It appears that no action was taken on the issue after that, which allowed the three existing pedicab companies to continue their hold over the industry. Now, if Palmer’s new ordinance is approved by the full council, that status quo will become permanent. 

The committee did not take a vote on the proposed ordinance on Wednesday. But a spokesperson for Palmer said the council expects a final vote on the ordinance on Thursday — the last full meeting of the current City Council before five out of the seven current members are replaced next week. 

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...