Why Lafayette's lone taxi company has a monopoly on business yet might not last another decade
Photos by Robin May
|The writer, Luke Darby, outside of Artmosphere Downtown just before midnight on Saturday, June 17; cab arrived after a 15-minute wait.|
Genny delaHoussaye and her visiting friend wanted to avoid the risk of drunk driving from delaHoussaye's home, near the corner of Congress Street and Guilbeau Road, to Downtown's Greenroom. So they called a cab. After 45 minutes a Dixie Cab company cab arrived, already carrying a young couple in their early twenties, the man in the backseat and the woman up front with a 2-year-old girl. Three out of every four times she took a cab, delaHoussaye wound up sharing it with someone else, so this wasn't a shock.
Though she and her friend were trying to get to The Greenroom, the first stop was at University Medical Center (now University Hospital & Clinics). After a long parking lot wait, the woman got back in the cab with her daughter. "They won't take our insurance here," she said. "We have to go somewhere else."
At this point, the girl wanted to sit in back with her father, so she wedged herself, coughing and sniffling and visibly ill, between him and delaHoussaye's friend. By the time they got to the parking lot outside of Lafayette General's emergency room, the haze of drunkenness that makes everything funnier and more bearable had faded away. The woman brought her daughter in, but there was a line, so they returned to the car to wait their turn. Around this time delaHoussaye fairly lost her shit.
"Look dude, we're not paying for this," she said, after calling a friend to pick them up. The driver put up a faint, disgruntled argument, miffed at losing two fares but probably aware that the situation had spiraled into the ridiculous. He may also have been distracted at the "sext" messages a woman kept sending him every few minutes, visible to everyone in the back seat.
The two hour-adventure got both delaHoussaye and her friend sick; delaHoussaye contracted pneumonia and her friend ended up in the emergency room. Though it's been two years since the incident, delaHoussaye can't wriggle out of her relationship with Lafayette's taxis - a DUI last November has her more reliant on them than ever.
You've probably lived a Lafayette cab story similar to this. It's more likely you've heard one second-hand and have never set foot in a cab in Lafayette though. So first let's get some of the basics out of the way.
All cabs in the city are run by one company, Dixie Cabs Inc. Maybe you've heard of a second company, City Cabs, but that's actually the same company. Joseph Yousef bought Dixie in 1995, back when it was the smallest of five cab companies in Lafayette and acquired the name and phone number for City the next year. Back then there were collectively more than 50 cabs on the road, and while Lafayette's population has since grown from 112,000 to 122,000, the number of cabs has shrunk to 18.
Piloting those 18 cabs are a little more than 40 drivers, the majority of them working part-time. Drivers lease their cars, paying Dixie a percentage of the sales they make on their shift, plus tips. (Point of etiquette: you should be tipping your driver.) The city requires all drivers to have a Class D chauffeur's license and undergo a background check for any convictions in the last five years.
Talking to a cab driver sounds like talking to anyone else in the service industry: the work isn't bad, the job has nontraditional hours, which can be great but tiring, and most people are really nice though there are always horrible customers. The difference is people are more likely to know someone who's a waiter (or maybe been a waiter) than a cab driver, so the whole experience seems more foreign. Maybe even seedy and salacious, despite the fact that we're now a decade past the cancellation of HBO's Taxicab Confessions.
"It's a job," says Dege Legg, formerly a driver for Dixie, "and it's not one people respect. Sometimes the night shift guys were just trying to make ends meet, working a day job then coming to drive a cab to help pay for their kids to go to private school or get books or something."
He goes on: "I've seen how hectic and stressful it is when you've got four calls to pick up on a Saturday night and you're trying to drop each person off as efficiently as possible, people still complain. It's a tough job, but the guys I worked with were all good at what they did. It's not a job people line up for."
Lafayette's cabs work by portioning the city in different zones. Instead of basing the fare off mileage or time spent in the car, the cost depends on which zone you start at and the one you want to get to. The two-mile drive from let's say the Children's Museum Downtown to the Cajundome Convention Center is $6.50 for one person, $7 for two. The two-and-a-half to three-mile drive from the Heymann Performing Arts Center to the airport? Thirteen dollars for one person and $14 for a pair.
This was the norm back when Yousef got into the business. The companies threw standard meters out the window after Lafayette's insane traffic made fares wildly inconsistent. In other cities, when a taxi is moving the meter goes up x number of dollars per mile, but if it's sitting still the meter still runs, counting minutes instead of miles. A ride could fluctuate from $6 to $20 depending on the time of day. The enigmatic zones are actually an effort to keep fares stable.
When cars aren't on call they're in line at two waiting areas while dispatchers take calls and organize riders based on where they are and where they're going. The fleet is split pretty evenly in half between the night and day shifts. When you start out, you end up on the night shift. Put in enough time and you get to move to the day shift, which is coveted in no small part because the hours more closely match a traditional job.
It's rare to have every cab working on the same shift. The company bases distribution on what it thinks demand will be on a given day: More drivers will be working on a Friday night than a Tuesday for example. Calls for rides go up during the day, in bad weather and at the start of the month when most people have gotten their paychecks. When the demand for rides is greater than the number of cars on the road, everyone's wait times go up.
Consistency is elusive with cabs. At The IND, we experimented with calling cabs to see what it was like for ourselves. Three out of four times the cabs arrived right at 15 minutes. The fourth time the car was over an hour late. Half had seatbelts. Some were clean, one filthy, one had an inexplicably wet backseat.
|Paying the far outside of Blue Moon Saloon at about 2 a.m. Sunday, June 8; driver Will Brown arrived in River Ranch for pickup after a 20-minute wait.|
Dixie's cabs are in a very technical sense not taxis; they're shuttles. If you don't tell the dispatcher when you arrange to be picked up that you want a private cab, which costs a few dollars more, you're liable to be one of several passengers the cabbie picks up in the area, making drop-offs coordinated by the dispatcher.
Obviously this pisses people off if they don't know in advance they'll be sharing a cab. Oh, you wanted a private cab? Of course I wanted a private cab, I didn't realize that was a thing to specify.
Unfortunately when a lot of calls come in, the drivers are stretched thin and individual pick-up is no longer an option. Dixie isn't big enough to smoothly service all of Lafayette at its busiest, but the company also can't cover the operational costs to be prepared for that volume all the time.
Insuring his fleet of 18 cabs, Yousef pays $11,000 per car per year, an annual total of nearly $200,000. For perspective, to cover that cost each car has to average five $6 trips every day of the year, before even touching gas, maintenance, dispatchers' salary and then profits. Those numbers make it hard to financially justify the cost of adding more cars overall.
Lafayette is in an awkward middle ground, and it takes a lot of effort to not use the phrase "growing pains." The demand for taxis isn't high enough to merit the gas costs of having cars patrolling high-demand areas, so Dixie uses a dispatch method. It's the same reason taxis aren't making regular rounds at the Lafayette Regional Airport despite the airport making flight schedules available to them.
"Lafayette is like a big small town; it's somewhere in between the two," says Legg. "It wants to be a big metropolitan city, but with the cab service and other things it's just stuck. It wants the luxury of a big city, where you call a cab and it gets there right away. However, the amount of business for a cab company isn't that great."
In the list of busiest times there's a detail that's easy to miss - Dixie gets more calls during the day than at night. If you're surprised to learn this, it's because the people getting into cabs aren't necessarily who you think they are. Yes, there are people going to and from the airport, yes there are people with the good sense to not drive themselves home when they're plastered, but just as often the people calling cabs are using them to get to work, to drop kids off at school, to pick up groceries or pay their bills - people without cars, living in neighborhoods without buses. The people most likely to use Lafayette's cabs, for want of any other option, are the working poor.
"It's a market where there's just not that much demand for cab service," says Jimmy Thackston, general manager for the Hilton Lafayette (which is in the process of converting to Double Tree). "I see that my staff uses cab service more than my guests do. There are three or four team members who, twice a day, use cab service."
Regina Crouchet is one of those employees, and she's been working at the Hilton for 20 years. Crouchet has been relying on taxis to get to and from her housekeeping job at the Hilton for more than a year now, riding in them at least three days every week. Despite living next to the bus hub, she's willing to pay the $50-$60 per week in taxi fare. "I used to ride the bus, but I contracted arthritis in my knees. Up and down, up and down, it was just too much for me. So I decided to start trying the cabs out."
"To use public buses for a lot of people means you gotta get on a bus somewhere," says City Parish President Joey Durel. "Go downtown to the central hub, get off that bus, wait for the next bus, and that's why they use a cab. They can get their business done for $8 as opposed to paying $2 and waiting two and a half hours." Though Lafayette has unveiled new buses, problems remain, like wait times, connections and poorly maintained bus stops throughout the city. All small factors that weigh into pushing people away from buses.
Durel assures The IND that the taxi issue is a big concern when we meet with Ben Berthelot, the executive director of the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission, and Dee Stanley, the chief administrative officer for city-parish government. For as progressive a city as it is on so many other fronts, Lafayette is clearly lagging behind in this arena.
A dour taxi experience won't be enough to bring down Lafayette's tourism industry, but Durel and Berthelot admit that it's embarrassing to get complaints from visitors saying their cab experience stuck out as the biggest negative of their trip.
"More than a tourism issue, it's a community-wide issue," says Berthelot. "When I meet with people who want to start a tourism business I tell them that you need to make sure your business plan has more than just tourism. You're not going to sustain yourself with just that."
Which comes back to the family sharing delaHoussaye's cab, trying to get their infant to the hospital. Tourists aren't the people keeping Dixie running; it's people like those parents and the Hilton employees. It may be easy to write them off as irresponsible for taking a cab to the hospital, but it isn't hard to imagine the shitty situation that would necessitate that. A family with shaky medical insurance may not want to call emergency services if they aren't sure their insurance will cover the cost.
"Obviously taking the taxi on a daily or even weekly basis can become a huge expense in the long term," says Stanley, "but in the short term it's a lot cheaper than buying a car, getting insurance, etc. If you need a relatively cheap way to get your kids to school or to pay bills or to get groceries, then a $6 to $12 cab ride doesn't seem like a terrible option."
In bigger cities ridesharing apps are putting pressure on cab companies. The San Francisco-based Uber in particular has been getting international attention lately. Users download the app, upload their credit card information, and whenever they want a ride they order and pay through the app, with the chance to look up price options and wait times based on GPS location.
Valued at an estimated $18.2 billion, Uber in June alone expanded its operations into Austin and Miami as well as Lille, France, and Tijuana, Mexico. The company operates in more than 100 cities in more than 30 countries, and it's running into a lot of opposition. Cumulatively more than 10,000 taxi drivers in London, Madrid, Milan and Paris last month protested Uber's expansion into Europe. In April, a Berlin court issued a ban on some of Uber's services.
Domestically the company is also facing backlash. Last year Dallas tried to rewrite its ordinances to handicap Uber drivers in favor of the traditional local taxis, though that was scrapped amid public outcry. In October 2013, Malachi Hull, the New Orleans Taxicab Bureau director, issued the "Notice to Cease Unlawful Operations in the City of New Orleans," a letter that banned Uber from coordinating rides in the city and claimed that the company illegally advertises for both drivers and riders. As Gambit reported in February, this was a first because Uber isn't even operating in New Orleans yet.
But it may soon be offering service in the capital city. The Advocate reported that on June 25 Baton Rouge council members voted 8-2 to approve three separate measures that will open the door to ridesharing companies like Uber. One resolution invites them to come into the city, and an ordinance established how they'll be required to conduct driver background checks and vehicle inspections. Approval came despite objections from taxicab reps who complained that such competitors lack regulation and have unfair advantages.
According to Tom Hayes, Uber's New Orleans general manager, Baton Rouge reached out to the company some time ago.
Also, people in Lafayette may have noticed Uber recruitment ads popping up in their Facebook newsfeeds offering Lafayette drivers an opportunity to earn up to $50,000 a year in fares. Uber tells The IND the targeted ads are a way to gauge interest by letting prospective drivers sign up in areas where Uber doesn't yet operate. It's an interesting facet of the research the company does, but it doesn't indicate anything more than that.
"Uber would be a dream come true," says Stanley, but Lafayette is still a ways off from that being a reality. Before sending in even the first black car, Uber has to be sure that the market in Lafayette would be self-sustaining.
That's ultimately the problem with this whole thing. Public transit like buses and subways can keep going while turning no profit, maybe even operating at a loss. A privately owned company has to make money. Sometimes Dixie struggles to meet the demand for its cars, but that volume of demand doesn't happen often enough for the company to afford hiring more drivers, putting out more cars, or further refurbishing the ones already out. Dixie has no competition in Lafayette, which logic dictates would drive up standards, but there's barely enough business here to keep one cab company afloat. And if the city somehow manages to make buses more appealing and efficient, then the taxi market shrinks even more.
Durel and Stanley say they're trying to figure out what the city can do to help, looking for solutions that have worked in similar-sized cities so they can get an idea of a template.
Friendly and direct, Yousef doesn't mince words when talking about the relationship between Lafayette and the taxi industry: "The city doesn't care about helping business."
Twice a year all the cabs in the city have to get inspected for license renewal, and Yousef says he can't get anyone to work with him to streamline the process. As is, he has to practically shut down his business every six months instead of staggering the inspections.
When The IND mentions this problem to Durel, he says, "This is the first I'm hearing of it."
We're inclined to believe both men, since we're talking about a city with a taxi cab control board that hasn't had an active member since 2010. Communication doesn't seem to be at its most effective.
"If I knew what it would be like now I would never have gotten into this," Yousef says. "In seven, eight years I don't think there will be any more taxis in Lafayette."
Which would leave Lafayette's drunks, workers and families with sick toddlers even more stranded than they already are.