Last weekend I stepped out of a taxi in front of my house and realised I just don’t have to put up with this garbage anymore:
It started in line at the taxi stand, with the driver trying to get another customer — a total stranger — to share the ride with me.
Then the driver expressed his disappointment that I wasn’t going very far (I guess he was hoping for a bigger fare). The interior of the car was filthy; the seats were ripped and worn.
The car itself was an ancient Chevy Caprice. In the 10-block ride, the driver carried on a conversation via his headset the entire way, in a foreign language. (Research shows that talking on a phone, even hands free, while driving is as good as driving drunk.) His English was rudimentary at best. That turned out to be a good thing, because I couldn’t understand what he was trying to say when he insulted me for not tipping him enough.
I was too tired to explain to him that nothing he had done warranted encouragement.
And now I’m done with taxis.
As long as cars are available on my Uber app — which connects limo drivers with customers based on a mapping and pricing algorithm that delivers rides that are often cheaper than metered taxis — I’m taking Uber instead.
Don’t underestimate Uber. What it does is incredibly simple but incredibly clever — and it’s managed to fix bad taxis forever.
If you’ve ever taken a taxi in the New York metro area — especially outside Manhattan — “the depressing taxi experience” will be familiar to you. New Yorkers swap awful taxi tales like they’re war stories. We’re almost proud of them.
I’m not saying all taxi drivers are awful. I’ve had some really great taxi drivers. But it is not a generalization to say that really bad taxi experiences are too common to be ignored. If service at Starbucks was as routinely disappointing as service from taxis, Starbucks would have gone out of business long ago.
Yes, taxi drivers should be able to speak English.
Different American cities set different rules for taxis, and that plays out as wildly different levels of service depending on the standards they’re required to meet. Taxis in Las Vegas are great, for instance, and I’ve never had a Vegas driver who wasn’t fluent in English. In Jersey City, N.J., however, it’s unusual to get a driver who can converse beyond the minimum exchange required to get the fare from A to B.
This “speaking English” thing is important. The job requires drivers to be able to communicate in the language of the customers they’re serving. They need to be able to obey instructions from law enforcement. And it would be nice if they could chat politely with their fares, like Vegas drivers do. (In case you’re about to accuse me of being racist, turn the situation on its head: If I was to announce I was moving to France to become a taxi driver but I wasn’t going to bother to learn French, you’d laugh at my stupidity.)
Uber fixes this because it requires drivers to pass an orientation before they can start accepting fares. They can’t get through the orientation unless they can converse in English, a driver told me recently. And, of course, an Uber driver who can’t communicate will get low ratings from customers, and eventually dropped from the system.
Good behaviour is rewarded.
Unlike regular taxis, the Uber system punishes bad service.
It works both ways, too, because the drivers get to rate the passengers as well. Be rude, late or drunk once too often and suddenly you’ll find there is never a driver willing to pick you up. The customer-driver mutual rating system creates reciprocal obligations in which both sides and incentivized to be as nice as possible.
English isn’t the only new standard Uber sets. It requires drivers to have a car that is at least as modern as 2007. And it allows customers to choose the type of car they hail. It’s the opposite with regular taxis, where you get what you’re given. That’s why my awful taxi ride home was in a car you couldn’t sell on CraigsList, whereas Uber cars range from merely unremarkable — which is a good thing in taxi — to totally cool.
And then there’s the taxi “call.” How many times has a cab dispatcher told you on the phone the driver is just “five minutes away,” after you’ve been waiting for 20 minutes? The Uber app shows you where the car is and measures its arrival in minutes. You can even text or call the driver to make sure.
This is impossible with regular taxis.
The end of the $US1 million taxi.
But it is the way Uber threatens to restructure the taxi economy that is its most important contribution. In many cities like New York, a limited number of “medallions” are sold giving the owners the right to operate taxis. Because they are limited, the price of them can be astronomical. In New York, medallions sell for more than $US1 million each.
How is a taxi operator supposed to get that money back? By providing the cheapest possible vehicle with the cheapest possible labour, and running both into the ground. That’s why taxi companies rent their vehicles to drivers. They need the guaranteed income. The taxi system is almost designed to provide the worst service possible, and to pay drivers the least it can.
All Uber requires is a modern car and a clean record. Drivers get a simple cut of each fare. There is no $US1 million entry fee that needs to be clawed back. And there is no car rental that needs to be earned before the driver makes any money.
Every Uber driver I’ve asked loves being an Uber driver. A lot of them say they like being able to dip in and out of it when they feel like — simply by switching their app on or off.
What about the hated ‘surge’?
The downside, of course, is that Uber has “surge” pricing which makes rides dramatically more expensive during periods of heavy demand. I’ve noted before that if you know what you’re doing you can actually save money using Uber. And in New Jersey particularly, there’s a nice oversupply of drivers because New York drivers with a New York Taxi & Limousine Commission licence can legally drive for Uber in New Jersey, too.
But Uber has a surprise even for people who hate the surge: Uber Taxi. On the street in New York the other day, I hailed an Uber taxi, and a yellow cab picked me up, and charged me the regular rate in cash. It was actually an improvement on a regular yellow cab because instead of standing in the street and waving my arm like an idiot, he drove to me. Uber even makes hailing a cab easier! (During a New York winter this is not a trivial consideration.)
Uber basically provides superior service and superior cars at rates that are either identical, or cheaper, than taxis. Occasionally during a surge the price is more. But that seems like a small price to pay for sweeping away a rotten, broken system full of waste, rudeness and inefficiency.
Now that I’ve been using Uber regularly, I don’t see that I ever have to offer taxi companies encouragement ever again.
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