Aaron Caffarel, drives for both Uber and Lyft, and says Uber appears to be the ride-hailing option of choice in Baton Rouge—at least for now. (Photo by Don Kadair)
When his girlfriend’s car recently broke down, Baton Rouge resident Logan Anderson lent her his vehicle to drive to work while he took advantage of the city’s ride-hailing options.
“Because I live fairly close to work, I was able to say, ‘We don’t need to rent a car. You just take mine, and I’ll Uber to and from work,” Anderson says.
He’s one of a growing number of people across Baton Rouge who’ve begun turning to Uber or Lyft, not only on weekend nights out, but also for daily commutes. Anderson, the policy and research project manager at the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, says he even has a colleague who doesn’t own a car, lives downtown and often takes an Uber to work.
“At first people were attracted to the novelty,” says Anderson, “but now Uber and Lyft are starting to become a normalized part of people’s lives.”
It certainly hasn’t always been this way. Three years ago, before any ride-hailing apps existed in Baton Rouge, being without a vehicle posed a much bigger problem if you had somewhere to be, especially in city with poor public transit options.
That explains why Baton Rouge was eager too welcome Uber in the summer of 2014. Since then, ride-hailing has become so popular in the area that by January of this year, Uber’s rival company Lyft made it’s Baton Rouge debut.
“At first people were attracted to the novelty, but now Uber and Lyft are starting to become a normalized part of people’s lives.”
—Logan Anderson, Baton Rouge resident
Today, in a city rife with transportation issues, Uber and Lyft are offering some needed relief. Along with keeping drunk drivers off the roads, ride-hailing services are becoming ingrained into everyday routines and improving Baton Rouge’s quality of life. And the industry still has room to grow as Uber and Lyft reach beyond their core demographic—young people—to older generations catching onto the trend.
“Uber’s goal is to ensure anyone, anywhere can push a button and get a ride within minutes,” says Evangeline George, a company spokeswoman. “The Baton Rouge community has embraced Uber since our launch three years ago, with residents counting on the app to connect with both safe rides and flexible work opportunities. In coming years, we look forward to becoming even more a part of the city’s fabric.”
Uber and Lyft offer a similar service, which allows riders to hail and pay for rides through an app on their smartphone and a driver is dispatched to their address within minutes. For basic service, Lyft and Uber have a base fare of $1.25, a service fee of $1.75, a charge of 15 cents per minute and 90 cents per mile. Lyft’s minimum fare is $4, while the minimum Uber fare is $5.75.
The companies are also alike in covert operations. Neither will disclose the number of drivers they employ in Baton Rouge. Even city-parish officials say information on Uber and Lyft licensing fees paid locally is confidential. But representatives from both companies insist they’ve been successful in the Capital Region.
“We have been growing quickly in Baton Rouge since January,” says Chelsea Harrison, Lyft’s senior policy communications manager. “In general, as the service has become popular, people become familiar with Lyft even before we launch.”
Lyft, like Uber, was attracted to the college town aspect of Baton Rouge, Harrison says. Baton Rouge was one of the first 40 cities Lyft expanded to and the second in Louisiana. By March, the rapidly-growing company also moved into Lafayette and Lake Charles.
Aaron Caffarel, 27, has been an Uber driver for one year and recently began driving for Lyft as well. He has a full-time job so he drives part-time, mostly on weekends when demand is greatest. But most of his riders and earrings come from Uber rather than Lyft.
“Lyft doesn’t get very many rides,” Caffarel says. “I can go long periods of time without getting a request.”
While Lyft does offer some features that Uber doesn’t, such as tipping and multiple stops, it seems Baton Rouge’s ride-hailing service of choice—at least for now—is still Uber, he says.
“Uber is getting more saturated,” Caffarel says. “I still have riders say it’s their first time doing it. I do drive around LSU a lot, and it’s common for college students to have it, but among the older crowd, they’re still learning about it and starting to use it.”
In cities across the country, the success of Uber and Lyft has often come at the expense of taxi cab companies. But Baton Rouge’s taxi business apparently hasn’t seen much of an impact. Since Uber entered in 2014, the number of operating taxis has remained stable, even slightly increasing. According to the city-parish Taxi Cab Control Board, there were 129 taxis operating in 2014 and now there are 131.
Although local taxi companies opposed ride-hailing services when Uber launched in 2014, Darla Vaughn, member of the control board, says they have not received any complaints from taxi companies regarding Uber and Lyft. Keith Wyckoff, who manages the city’s largest cab company, Yellow Cab, and was a vocal critic of Uber when it launched, did not return multiple requests for comment.
Ride-hailing services have also been praised for helping keep intoxicated patrons in passengers seats rather than behind the wheel. In Baton Rouge, officials can’t directly attribute a decrease in drunk driving to the advent of Uber and Lyft, but they say it has been a welcome addition to transportation options for those who have been drinking.
“People are definitely using their services,” says Baton Rouge Police spokesman Sgt. L’Jean McKneely. “Uber, taxis, designated drivers—it’s another tool that takes the number of drivers that normally drive, off the road. We believe it’s an asset.”
The Baton Rouge Police Department’s DWI Task Force saw a nearly 28% decrease in drunk-driving arrests from 2013 to 2014, the year Uber arrived. The task force arrested 1,027 drunk drivers in 2012, 1,260 in 2013, 912 in 2014 and 959 in 2015, according to BRPD. But the police department insists this data does not suggest a correlation between ride-hailing services and impaired driving in Baton Rouge.
In addition to reliable rides, Uber and Lyft provide decent jobs, especially part-time gigs. On an average weekend night, Caffarel says he makes about 15 to 20 trips and earns about $125. Earnings are less predictable on week days, which are slower, he says. From his conversations with other Uber riders, Caffarel says most drivers are part-time.
Maria Oswald, 42, has a full-time job in the medical field and has been driving part-time for Uber in Baton Rouge for almost two years. Both Caffarel and Oswald say they took the jobs to earn extra money to supplement their main income source.
“I like it because I’m the boss of my own schedule,” Oswald says. “I was looking for a part-time job that fits my schedule. Uber is perfect for me.”
Drivers also feel they are providing a needed service for the Baton Rouge area. The city lacks reliable public transportation, Caffarel notes, so ride-hailing services offers an alternative for people without vehicles.
“I get plenty of rides from people who either don’t have their own car at all or whose car is out of commission,” he adds. “They use Uber or Lyft to get to and from work and even to go grocery shopping. It’s certainly helped fill a large gap in public transportation. It’s an easy-to-use and relatively cheap means of safely getting around.”
Still, ride-hailing apps are far from able to solve Baton Rouge’s transportation issues. Representatives for the Center for Planning Excellence and Anderson of BRAC both maintain that the answer lies in using a combination of ride-hailing services and public transit.
“Having those options does not mean we don’t need fixed route transit, which actually does have the potential to take cars off the road and provides affordable transportation for many who need it,” says Lauren Knotts, CPEX communications director. “The real opportunity is to enhance our transit system by developing partnerships between Uber-type services and transit, where ride-hailing vehicles can fill gaps in transit service.”
In the 2017 regular legislative session, lawmakers shelved a bill that would have further regulated ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft by creating statewide rules, which would have ideally expanded access to smaller cities.
Under the bill, state and local governments would have shared 1% of each fare. Currently, Uber and Lyft operate under a patchwork of ordinances that vary by city or parish. Supporters, including Uber and Lyft officials, said statewide ride-hailing regulations have been adopted in 44 other states.
But House Transportation Committee Chairman Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, the bill’s sponsor, asked to set the legislation aside due to committee criticism. Opponents argued the proposal would nullify existing agreements between cities like Baton Rouge and New Orleans and ride-hailing services. New Orleans representatives said the move would cost their city $2 million annually.