There’s a new way to get around the French Quarter, and it’s starting to stir up trouble.
Golf carts for hire, often decked out with leather seats or eye-catching colors and with room for six or eight passengers, have become a regular feature of downtown New Orleans, zipping along bumpy streets, lined up outside events and occasionally parked on sidewalks.
Over the past year, according to denizens of the city’s downtown neighborhoods, they’ve joined the ranks of pedicabs and ride-hailing services as a popular way for tourists to get around.
“I see them all the time, multiple times a shift,” said Nikki Stroebel, a pedicab driver.
The carts are unpermitted — the city does not currently give out commercial licenses to transport people around New Orleans this way — so it’s not clear how many drivers are currently offering rides. But in recent months, their popularity has attracted the attention of local officials, and Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration may be about to put a stop to the party.
According to state law, golf carts— whether for commercial or personal use — are only allowed in designated areas like golf courses, where signs are posted indicating their permitted use. And officials say the rising violations have gotten out of hand.
According to a statement from Department of Public Works officials, there is no official estimate of the number of golf carts in operation, but the department has observed an “increase in the use of golf carts around the city,” especially on larger events days downtown. “This has become a serious concern,” the statement said.
The department has gotten the green light from Cantrell to work with the New Orleans Police Department to “take decisive action against the illegal use of golf carts on City streets and rights-of-way,” it went on.
“In collaboration with NOPD, DPW is moving forward with plans to immobilize, tow and dispose of these unauthorized vehicles,” officials wrote, adding that planning for heightened enforcement and legal reviews began in the end of 2023.
According to Karen Boudrie, a spokesperson for the NOPD, the department “is working to devise policies and procedures with regard to the growing problem of unlicensed golf carts for hire.”
The threatened crackdown comes as city officials and law enforcement have worked in recent months to tamp down the activities of unlicensed vendors on Bourbon Street using high-profile law enforcement sweeps and orders from Municipal Court judges threatening jail time.
Officials have said they would work to streamline the city’s permit process to help vendors become legal, but it’s unclear if any changes have been made.
Public works officials also said they were considering making certain golf cart uses legal on particular routes and within set hours, to “help balance the convenience of using golf carts for short-distance travel with the need to ensure public safety and compliance with relevant laws.”
Golf carts vs. pedicabs
Any discussion of legalizing golf carts in certain areas is likely to heat up an already tense debate set off by the proliferation of the vehicles.
With their rapid rise, city’s growing cadre of golf cart drivers have spurred a familiar tension — between detractors, who argue that the drivers pose a hazard to street safety and divert profits away from legal ride services, and drivers who say they’re just trying to eke out a small slice of the city’s tourism profits.
Among those with the biggest concerns are pedicab drivers, who say that they’ve increasingly lost business to golf cart drivers. In some instances, they say, the golf carts will swoop in as they’re about to pick up a customer and offer to drive them for half the pedicab standard starting rate of $10 a person.
Foster Fox, who has been driving a pedicab for five years, said it’s not fair for golf carts to operate with no regulations. He and his fellow pedicabbers have to deal with the costs of their own regulated industry: paying a chunk of their profits to pedicab companies, a fee to obtain and renew their city permits and sometimes tickets for violating parking restrictions.
“We’re trying to make a living out here, we have to do a drug test, we have to fill out all these forms,” said Fox. “There’s no oversight. If they get in a wreck… God forbid they get in a wreck.”
Rob Lynch, owner of one of the city’s three registered pedicab companies, Bike Taxi Unlimited, said he’s been trying to get the city to deal with unlicensed transportation companies for years.
“Year in and year out, I raise the same concerns regarding unlicensed for-hire vehicles to the relevant officials,” wrote Lynch in an email. “While the people in those official positions change, the response, or lack thereof, does not.”
Plenty of tourists
Golf cart drivers argue there’s plenty of business to go around.
“There’s not enough bikes or golf carts or cars to accommodate all the people who want a ride,” said one golf cart driver, who asked to remain anonymous, while parked on the corner of Bourbon and Dumaine streets on Wednesday afternoon, taking a break with another golf cart driver.
And people like it, they said. They get where they’re going faster than in a pedicab, and it can be convenient for tourists traveling short distances downtown — especially older people trying to avoid the walk, they said.
The two drivers said that they’d like to go through the steps to operate legally.
“We’ve been to City Hall and tried to get permits,” said one driver, adding that it’d been about a year since he applied for a new business permit and he’d gotten no response.
“Get a permit and let the city make the money off it,” said his friend, before whisking a middle-aged man donning Mardi Gras beads, visiting from Detroit, back to his hotel on the other side of Canal Street.
Even if the political will was mustered to create a legal golf cart industry, it would likely be a long process. Getting the city’s pedicabs onto the street after the City Council voted to allow them in 2010 involved a contentious, yearlong process involving procedural issues and legal challenges by taxi and carriage owners worried about competition.
“If they do decide to go ahead and regulate them, I’d hope they’d get stakeholder input,” said Lynch. “Make sure things are done properly instead of being forced into giving people permits.”