Now That I've Started Using Uber, I Won't Book Taxis The Normal Way Ever Again

Uber is a game-changer for anyone who needs a car to get from A to B in Sydney or Melbourne.

Uber is a smartphone app to book taxis and hire cars. I’ve used it several times over the past two months, taking a normal taxi one way, an Uber booking the other to compare the difference. The Uber service was superior every time.

Finally, I matter as a customer. As a result, I’m hooked.

I’ve detested Sydney’s taxi booking system for a long time. The phone version let me down as often as it helped, leaving me stranded, late and even missing planes. It’s the white lies I hated the most – the driver who “was outside, honking, but you didn’t respond”, which was surprising when I was on the footpath all along

This doesn’t happen with Uber, so now, I’ll avoid booking via a taxi company ever again.

Uber has brought competition to a complacent industry that has enjoyed a virtual monopoly for too long and you get the feeling they’re scared.

The established taxi industry is fighting back by trying to knock hire cars out of the equation, with the Taxi Council demanding a 24 hour window on Hire Car pre-bookings. In the submission, they seem to be keen to price hire cars out of the market to maintain the taxi industry’s stranglehold.

Personally, we wish they’d concentrate more on ensuring the cabs we pre-book actually turned up, and turned up on time. And when you ring to complain, that they did something to fix it, rather than just telling you tough luck, as has happened to Business Insider.

One of the Uber Black fleet in Sydney.

And now the NSW Government is looking at legislating the whole taxi app industry.

I’m a bit slow to Uber. My colleague Luke Hopwell at Gizmodo is an unabashed fan and details his experience here.

Let me explain it a little too.

What is it?
Uber is an online booking system. It began in America in 2010, with the likes of Goldman Sachs and Google Ventures among its investors. It’s now in 34 countries and nearly 100 cities, including Sydney and Melbourne. There are plans to roll it out in other Australian capitals later this year.

How does it work?
It lets you book a cab or hire car online via your phone or PC, on demand. You don’t need to prebook because there’s rarely a car more than 15 minutes away and most of the time, it’s less than 10 minutes.

You register your details, including a credit card, to open an account. When you catch a ride, it’s automatically billed to your card.

The best bit? There’s no 11% card surcharge like Cabcharge.

There are three tiers: taxi, Uber Black and Uber Lux.

Taxi is just that. Booking costs $2, so it’s 40 cents cheaper than normal cab bookings, but the drivers are far more reliable because both sides of the deal trust each other. You rate drivers out of five stars at the end of the ride. It keeps them on their toes.

You get rated too, so they know you’re a decent customer.

But the thing I noticed most was that the Silver Service cab drivers who mostly take the jobs behave the way I always expected of a brand that has repeatedly disappointed me. Uber is doing Silver Service a huge favour, even if it is picking the eyes out of its best drivers.

Uber Black is a private hire car. They cost generally works out at 10-15% more, but most of the time the price difference with a cab is minimal, especially when you take the credit card surcharge into account.

And the experience far more pleasant than a taxi. How much do you value avoiding grief, body odour/smoke/vomit/fart-scented cabs with the dashboard warning lights ablaze saying the car desperately needs a service?

The ride is most likely a Holden Caprice – entry level hire car – or Chrysler 300, but you may get lucky with a BMW 7 series or Mercedes S Class, which are normally…

Uber Lux, which costs up to 50% more than a taxi. Expect the very best: late model European luxury, a driver who opens and closes the door, bottles of water and there are some Audi Q7 six-seaters about too.

Why do I like it? Let me count the ways.

  • If you value reliability over price, Uber is for you.
  • If you’re sick of indifferent taxi call centres, where you can hear them filing your complaint in the bin even before you’ve hung up the phone, Uber is for you.
  • If you’re sick of standing there wondering where your cab is 30 minutes later, only to discover no-one’s taken the job, Uber is for you.
  • If you hate the 11% credit card surcharge, Uber is for you.
  • If you like personalised service and knowing the driver’s name, Uber is for you.
  • If you want to keep track of someone or something you’ve sent in the car, Uber is for you.
  • If you just want to jump out of the car when you get to your destination, rather than fiddle around with payments, Uber is for you.
  • If you’d just like a little luxury – to impress a date, or your friends or simply spoil yourself, Uber is for you.
  • If having proper accounting and accountability matters, Uber is for you: after each trip, you’re emailed an invoice, plus a map of the route, as well as times. It’s data-rich, unlike those scrappy, heat sensitive cab receipts that say “city-suburbs”.
  • You can log into Uber’s website for a list of all the trips you’ve taken.
  • You can get a price estimate for Uber Black and Lux rides.
  • If something goes wrong, Uber fixes it promptly (see example 3, below).
  • Between 10am and 5pm, there’s a 40% discount on taxi fares.
  • And how’s this for customer service – here’s what they say if the fare is higher than the estimate:

Every once in a while, your driver might take a route that could have been more direct. You can review your route on the receipt we send to your email. If you don’t think your driver went the best way, contact us at t.uber.com/support and we will be happy to review your fare.

* EDITOR’S NOTE: Since publishing this story, Uber has introduced a 5% credit card surcharge.

Compare the prices

Taxi, Sydney:
$3.50 flagfall
$2.40 booking fee
$2.14 km/$2.57 km (10pm-6am)
Waiting Time 92.1c min ($55.30 hour) under 26 km/h.
$2.50 weekend evening surcharge
11% credit card surcharge

Uber Taxi
Same fares, except there’s no card surcharge and the booking fee is 40 cents less, and off-peak (10am-5pm weekdays) there’s a 40% discount.

Uber Black, Sydney
$8 flagfall
$2 booking fee
$1.25 min under 25km/h
$3.25 km/h over 25km/h

Uber Lux, Sydney
$19 flagfall
$2 booking fee
$1.50 min under 18km/h
$4.25 km/h over 18km/h

You can get Uber Black to the airport from Sydney’s CBD for a set price: $65 domestic/$75 international. (A cab costs me up to $55). Melbourne CBD-airport is $80.

Melbourne only has Uber Black and it’s cheaper:

Uber Black, Melbourne
$6.50 flagfall
$2 booking fee
$0.75c min under 18km/h
$2.50 km/h over 18km/h

But there must be a downside
Well, yes, it’s called surge pricing for Black and Lux. During periods of high demand, Uber increases the rate. For example, during the Barangaroo fire in March, the price doubled in the afternoon, dropping to 1.25x around 6pm.

During snowstorms in America, the prices jumped up to six times the normal fare, leaving many furious.

Uber says it’s an incentive to drivers to keep them available and ensure the service is reliable.

The other downside is that the immediate coverage area doesn’t seem to spread much further west in Sydney than Haberfield and across the Bridge to North Sydney, so it’s an inner-city service. You might pick up the odd car around Parramatta, but as I’ve dropped the pin around various parts of western Sydney and the Northern Beaches, it’s often no dice.

There have been concerns raised, especially by the taxi industry about liability, insurance and security issues, since Uber is not responsible for the cars or drivers, but hey, it’s not the Uber side of this industry that I’ve seen the RMS cracking down on for unroadworthy vehicles, or the police arresting the drivers for assault.

That said, every driver I’ve talked to is a fan of the service and love being part of it. Most tellingly, the taxi drivers prefer it to the cab companies they belong to.

David Rohrsheim, the guy running Uber in Sydney, is a self-described geek who studied in Adelaide, went over the US to study business at Stamford, got involved with the company there, then returned keen to play with some cutting edge Silicon Valley technology on home turf.

He’s young, energetic, entrepreneurial and I get the feeling he doesn’t mind picking a fight with the big boys. Good luck to him.

Some Uber moments that convinced me

Example 1.
It’s just after 10pm, after dinner in the Sydney industrial suburb of Alexandria when I walk out to catch my first Uber-booked cab.

There are four guys piled into a taxi 15 metres away, but the cabbie is honking, waving at me and refusing to move.

I wander over. “Are you Simon?”. I nod.

The driver turns to his interlopers, visitors to Sydney, and tells them to get out. This is my ride. It’s a little tense as they remove bags from the boot and wonder loudly, with great annoyance, where the cab they ordered 30 minutes ago could be.

I flick the switch to diplomat. This is my city and as crap as the cab service is, I don’t want Sydney to be embarrassed in front of a bunch of blokes from BrisVegas. So I plead with the driver to take them with me. We drop them at a hotel in the city, happy and grateful before pressing on for home.

On the trip home, my driver tells me he saw their job. He ignored it. He prefers Uber jobs.

Example 2.
I catch a cab from Circular Quay to Centennial Parklands, telling the driver to take me the fastest way possible. He takes me up Oxford Street (right now, Sydneysiders are shaking their heads). Some 25 minutes later, the fare costs me $35.

At little after 10pm, I book Uber Black from the middle of the park. Five minutes later, a BMW 7 series arrives, smelling of fresh leather, with chilled water bottles in the back. My ride home costs $39. Norman lives near Centennial Park, saw the job, and thought why not. It’s a good night for both of us.

Example 3.
My wife used Uber for the first time. She watched the driver get hopelessly lost and take a long time to pick her up. She gave Uber that feedback on the App. They reviewed the trip, saw it was so, apologised and gave her a $5 voucher towards her next trip. Win.

Example 4.
It’s after midnight on Saturday and we’re in Vaucluse at a birthday party. We call Uber Black. Our driver is there within 8 minutes, calling us, as so many of them do, to let us know he’s on the way. The ride home is $64, including tunnel toll, the water much appreciated. The ride over in a normal cab cost $58.

I drink the water. My wife feels special. That’s priceless.

Example 5.
I accidentally took something to work that my wife needed back. I called an Uber taxi. Even in the rain he was there in 3 minutes. I watched it get to her on the app, calling her as the cab approached. With a 40% daytime discount, it cost me $18. A courier would have cost $25 and taken 2-4 hours.

So that’s why I’m convinced.

What intrigues me is that the taxi industry’s response thus far is not to try and improve its lousy service in the face of better competition, but rather to force its reluctant and resentful customers to use their product whether they like it or not.

That’s not a sustainable business model and it’s about time state governments started to look at the industry and the desperate need for reform the same way the federal government did when it came to the waterfront in the 1990s.

The taxi industry is an essential part of getting around a big city and its reputation in both Sydney and Melbourne is truly awful. Uber is at least changing perceptions.

Oh and Uber has now introduced water taxis on Sydney Harbour

One more thing: if you want to sign up, Uber has an introduction scheme with a ‘spotters fee’, where, if you use my code, kiz9e, you get a $20 voucher towards your first ride and I get a $20 credit on my account. You might have seen your friends Tweet and Facebook it.

* EDITOR’S NOTE: Since publication, Uber has cut the credit for a first ride to $10 and the credit for recommendation to $10 too.

It’s smart business and clever word of mouth.

Now let me take you through the experience on the Uber app.

How Uber works

Let's say you want a taxi around Circular Quay. The GPS pics up where you are and the screen shows the Uber cabs available. It even tells you how long to pickup before you book.

Here's the same for Uber Lux. Plenty of hire car rides handy. Who knew?

The other day, after waiting an hour for a bus on my route, and three scheduled services not turning up, I called an Uber cab and shared it with the other stranded passengers. We can see Alan coming to rescue us.

When you get to the end of the trip, you just jump out - no payment required, then you get a message about the cost.

Then you rate the driver and trip out of five stars. It helps ensure standards are maintained by Uber. You can give written feedback too - and they read it and respond if there's a problem.

Let's say you left something behind - they give you the details of any trip in the last 3 days and the driver's mobile number.

An email arrives with all these details of your trip. Handy for accounts and data nerds interested in how slow Sydney traffic is. There's even a rounding down discount to the nearest dollar.

You even get a map of the route, so if you're not happy with the way the driver took you and think it cost you more, tell Uber and they'll review it.

This is how the back of a ride should feel and look, rather than vomit, wrappers and vinyl.

Photo: Luke Hopewell/Gizmodo.

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