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Pedicabs hit the streets of New Orleans

Alex Mata
Alex Mata is seen on his carriage on Thursday outside Jackson Square in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Carriage owners fear that approval of pedicabs in the city will take away from their business. Gerald Herbert / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pedicabs have arrived at last with great fanfare among New Orleans officials, but they are raising anxieties among operators of the iconic mule-drawn carriages that take wedding parties, conventioneers and other visitors on tours of the historic French Quarter.

Touted as a transportation option for tourists that will also provide new jobs, the vehicles that look like a cross between a tricycle and a rickshaw were unveiled last week at a news conference in the city's Jackson Square. Mayor Mitch Landrieu was one of the first passengers.

"We expect that over 100 full and part-time jobs will be created by the three pedicab companies, which is significant in this economy," Landrieu said.

Carriage owners, however, fear the pedicabs will only divide, not add to, the number of transportation customers. "There's always a limited number of discretionary dollars," carriage driver Pat Logan said Thursday as fellow drivers tried to entice passing tourists in the Quarter to climb aboard for $15-per-person tours.

"We're still recovering from Katrina," carriage business operator James Lauga said, referring to the August 2005 storm that breached levees, flooded most of the city and all but halted commerce for months. "We got set back 15 years with Katrina. We're slowly making the climb back. But it's still a struggle in this economy."

Another carriage owner, Alex Mata, filed an appeal with the City Council this week over the permitting process. Mata applied for a permit to operate pedicabs but lost out in the city's lottery for a limited number of permits. Mata said he doesn't like the vehicles and didn't relish the idea of getting into the business but felt he needed to in order to survive economically.

His appeal alleges a flawed lottery process in which applicants filed multiple applications and sometimes used proxies to increase their chances.

The city did not respond to a request for comment. A pedicab operator reached Thursday by The Associated Press declined comment.

Small numbers of pedicabs have operated in New Orleans on and off in the past but the business never took off for a variety of reasons. Talk of adding the people-powered conveyances to the transportation mix in the tourist-dependent city began again in earnest late last summer, culminating in a September 2010 City Council vote to allow pedicabs once rules and a permitting process were established.

Even then it took a year to establish the rules and issue the first permits. Hearings were punctuated by complaints about the new competition from taxi and carriage operators, and complaints from would-be pedicab operators that the lottery system proposed for issuing the permits would leave them with nothing to show for their initial investments if they lost out.

City officials opted for the lottery in what they bill as a pilot program that will initially allow up to 45 of the vehicles on the streets.

After their introduction last week, there was no evidence of the vehicles at Jackson Square on Wednesday or Thursday afternoon.

No matter, said Lauga. "These pedicabs are going to swoop in at the busiest times of the year," he said.

At first glance, the small pedicabs appear to pose little threat to the larger, high-riding carriages that are a familiar sight in the French Quarter. The carriages generally carry about eight people on extended tours of the quarter. The pedicab price structure outlined by the city, $5 per person for the first six blocks, plus $1 per passenger for each additional block, provides for inexpensive short hops within the Quarter and into adjacent neighborhoods.

"They're saying they're only going to do short routes and one to four people going a few blocks but that's not what's going to happen," Lauga predicts. "There's nothing to keep these guys from doing tours."

Aside from competition for the tourist dollar, Logan said he fears the pedicab operators will end up acting as tour guides, with no guarantee they will provide accurate information about the history and architecture in the Quarter and surrounding neighborhoods. "I have no idea if they know what they're talking about," said Logan.

Such criticisms were frequently heard about carriage drivers in years past but Lauga and Mata noted that the city now requires the carriage drivers to be trained as tour guides. "We're licensed tour guides," said Logan, who added that he practiced law for 30 years before retiring, taking a course in the city's history and obtaining a tour guide license and deciding to drive a carriage. "It turned out to be a lot of fun and, most of the time, profitable," he said.

For all his complaints, Mata said he'd drop his appeal if the city would agree to restrict the pedicabs from picking up fares in and around Jackson Square, the green space lined by St. Louis Cathedral, other historic buildings and busy Decatur Street, where the carriages line up to offer rides.

"We'd withdraw all our opposition," said Mata.