COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Uber improves the taxi experience

I’m a big fan of Uber, a new alternative for taxis. I’ve used it in several cities — San Francisco, San Diego, and Seattle — over the past several years. For the past week I used it extensively in New York City while on vacation along with five other family members. During this visit, I used New York City taxis on a few occasions, which served only to remind me how good Uber is.

This column is meant to reach those who haven’t tried Uber, have doubts or just may not be aware of what they’re missing.

Every step of the way — from thinking about the need for transportation to arriving at your destination — the Uber experience is superior to using a taxi. In fact, it’s more like hiring your own car for the day and calling for your driver when you need to go to another location. The only difference is the car and driver will vary for each ride.

First, you need to set up your account on Uber, which takes just a few minutes. Download the app, enter your contact information, add your image if you’d like and enter your credit card.

When you need a ride, no need to deal with trying to hail a cab from the street corner or dialing a taxi company’s often-surly dispatcher. Instead, simply open the app, view your location on the map, refine it if needed, adding your street address, hotel, restaurant or other location.

Select the type of vehicle from the several choices ranging from a sedan to a limo, and you’ll immediately see an estimated number of minutes it will take for the Uber driver to reach you. You can see the vehicle’s progress on a map, watching a little icon moving closer to you as the time to arrive decreases. On the bottom of the display is the driver’s name, picture, vehicle type and license number.

You also can text or call to give additional information, and the driver has your phone number if he needs to reach you.

Once I made my request the time it took for the cars to arrive varied from a couple of minutes to about 15, the latter for a six-passenger UberXL during rush hour.

Once the car arrives, jump into the vehicle and you’re off to your destination. Upon arrival, you just get out. All payments are automatic, including the tip. You’ll receive a detailed electronic receipt by email a few seconds later and be asked to rate the driver between 1 and 5 stars. The drivers also are asked to rate you for Uber’s records.

The cost of the ride is similar to that of a taxi if you choose the Uber X option, typically a 4-door compact or full size sedan that holds four passengers. San Diego Uber says its costs are half that of a taxi. Costs for other vehicles are commensurately more expensive.

During my recent New York trip, I typically requested an Uber XL, a larger vehicle that holds six, and that was about 20 percent more expensive. In most cases, the XL vehicles were a Toyota Highlander, Chevy SUV or Toyota Sequoia. In every instance the vehicles were late models in pristine condition, inside and out. Traveling with six at a time would have required two taxis, so there was no alternative to the Uber SUV.

Compared to a taxi, the ride is much more enjoyable. Cabs in New York and elsewhere have a security partition about a foot in front of your face with constant commercials and promotions playing. You feel trapped or at times even claustrophobic, and can’t see out of the window in front of you.

Also, taxi drivers are notorious for going a roundabout way to increase your fare; the incentive for Uber drivers is to get you to your destination as quickly as possible; you even have a copy of the route. On one of my taxi trips, in fact, the driver took a long detour.

Most notably, Uber drivers are nearly always much more professional. They tend to be friendlier, more conversant, better dressed and happier. In interviewing several of the drivers, there’s a lot of reason for their more pleasant attitude.

Unlike cab drivers who work for a taxi company, Uber drivers need not deal with a dispatcher to give them instructions where to go. As one driver expressed it, the customer is the dispatcher.

Uber drivers work for themselves, can begin and end work whenever they choose, and use their own vehicles. For each fare, Uber takes 30 percent commission, and the driver keeps the rest. Of the 70 percent the drivers take, about 15 percent (of the 70 percent) goes to expenses and the rest is profit. The driver never handles any money; Uber provides a direct deposit to the driver’s account weekly.

I also think Uber can be safer that a taxi. It’s much safer for an individual late at night to request an Uber car rather than standing on a street corner trying to hail a cab.

Uber sometime raises the price when demand is high, as much as several times; Uber calls it surge pricing. With one ride I was told beforehand that a 30 percent premium was in effect. I had to accept that to order the car. The pricing is merely a function of supply and demand, and while some complain about it, it’s a choice you can make to get a car quickly. There was never any deception about the pricing.

While Uber is compared to a taxi alternative, it’s really much more. It’s a car service for those who can only afford the cost of a cab.

There are several classifications of cars:

UberX: the least expensive and similar to or less than the cost of a taxi. Cars include Toyota Prius and Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima.

UberXL: A vehicle that’s ideal for transporting five or six passengers. Cars include Toyota Highlander, Hyundai Santa Fe, minivans and Honda Pilot. About one-third more expensive than an UberX.

UberSUV: A full-size SUV that’s about 50 percent more expensive than an UberX. For most needs, the UberXL provides nearly the same capability at a much lower price.

Uber Black: The original Uber vehicle that is a large town car. Costs about 40 percent more than an UberX.

These are rough estimates, as the rates and car types vary by location. Rates are calculated on a base plus time and distance of the ride. For more information, go to www.uber.com.


Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press. Send comments to phil.baker@sddt.com. Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.

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