Pedicabs have been a beloved form of transportation for tourists and locals alike—as well as income for working-class pedicabbers—in New Orleans since 2011. Many drivers describe it as one of the best jobs they’ve had. For some, it’s about the community and the social network it provides, and for others, it’s the chance to shape and share in visitors’ experiences. The drivers are, among other things, musicians, artists, parents, activists, aspiring grad students, filmmakers, and writers. The flexibility of the job and the income sustains their livelihoods and pursuits. Whatever the reason, the shared passion for pedicabbing runs deep and every day presents a new adventure. However, this world also has an underbelly only known to those who have been within the industry, and it is in need of systemic reform.
Twelve years ago, pedicabs were introduced to the city through a pilot program that offered 45 permits with the option to increase the cap to 65 if successful. These permits were allocated to only three companies, putting a triopoly in place for years. The pilot period was extended several times until January 2022 when legislation was filed to make pedicabs permanent. Concerns were raised about how minority and women-owned businesses were excluded from participation and that the labor issues created by the current structure would continue to persist. Despite these objections, the ordinance passed, giving the companies indefinite market control and cemented their power into the system we see today.
Over the years, calls have been made to change labor practices in the industry. Pedicab drivers are classified as independent contractors, yet ride for just one company. A driver’s contract has no exclusivity clause, but there are no reports of someone riding for more than one company at the same time. This prevents the companies from competing against each other and creates an environment where the drivers are subject to little autonomy and fear of retaliation if a driver decides to speak out. The rent that drivers pay to operate a pedicab has increased substantially—in some cases by 50 to 100%—with no increase to the City-mandated rate that drivers can charge. This leads to a form of “tip stealing” as drivers have to pay full rent for a shift or 30% of their total gross, tips and fares included. Shifts are assigned with little transparency, creating a competitive culture between drivers who may feel pressured to pay more than they’re obligated, or ride more than they are physically able, in order to get preferred shifts. Other complaints include: Companies are insured but drivers are liable to be sued if an accident occurs. Drivers have dispatch duties while on shift and only receive 10% off rent, or no compensation in some cases. There are no health protections for this physically demanding and high risk job and there are also no benefits or ability to build equity for long-term pedicabbers who have paid thousands of dollars to the companies. Drivers are the customers of these companies, not the employees, and they should have a voice when it comes to the product as they take a majority of the risk.
Another issue, and one that speaks to the tourism industry as a whole, is the lack of diversity and equity. In my observation, less than 5% of pedicab drivers are people of color and there is no majority representation in pedicab ownership for women, people of color, LGBTQ+ or other historically underrepresented communities. Drivers are consistently subject to sexual harassment, racist remarks, and homophobic slurs which are left inadequately addressed due to this absence of diversity in decision-making processes. Though it may be unintentional, the industry simply doesn’t reflect the demographics of the city in which it has operated for over a decade. Moreover, 35% of the permits were originally intended to be allocated to Disenfranchised Business Enterprises (DBEs); however, historically disadvantaged businesses were locked out with all of the permits held by non-DBE companies. This issue of equity was recently brought to the City Council in February and they agreed. The Council voted 6-0 to add 20 additional permits in an effort to allow for DBE participation within the industry.
The rise in permits brings both hope and fear. It creates the opportunity to increase diversity in ownership and, with more competition among companies, could encourage reform to the industry. It could also negatively impact drivers should the majority of the new permits be taken by one company, which could perpetuate the status quo.
The focus now shifts to how the newly-implemented permits will be allocated. Permits were originally allocated through a lottery system. There are other, more transparent and fair ways it could be structured to prevent the aforementioned system from persisting, such as a merit-based system with a selection committee, limiting the amount awarded to one permit per application, or staggering their release, which would ensure DBE inclusivity, promote local microbusinesses, and allow time for the market to adjust respectively.
This has been the first real change to the structure of the pedicab industry since its inception. For a moment, there is a chance to balance the power structure between company and driver and radically transform an industry that was once seen as impermeable. Remove the word “pedicab” and many of these issues hold true in other service industry related fields. Collaboration is necessary to create a more equitable and representative system that benefits everyone: drivers, businesses, the tourism community, and the city as a whole. Change can be volatile and uncertain, but what happens now will determine the pedicab industry for years to come.
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Photo by Jordan Mychal