Those of us that haven't always lived downtown on a major street have, at some point, used our phone to call a taxi. This summer, with the release of a number of smartphone apps, that process got a bit easier. Some, like the one from Beck Taxi, belong to existing cab fleets, but the bigger change is that there are also companies like Uber and Haillo launching businesses based only on connecting drivers and customers through a smartphone app.
Uber Toronto started by offering a limo-type service in both town car and SUV formats, but as of the end of August it added taxis as well. To promote this launch (and win customer favour for their inevitable battle with the cab companies) they are offering free taxi rides up to $20 until
Wednesday at midnight Friday at 3 PM.
Customers open the app on their Android or iPhone (Blackberry users will have to use their web browser) and use its built-in GPS to locate and request the nearest cab. Once the order is placed a text message is sent to the customer with an estimated arrival time and the incoming cab can be tracked via GPS on the on-line Google map.
The driver starts his meter, as usual, at $4.25 and it runs on the same mileage and "waiting in traffic" rates as a hailed cab. At the end of the ride a 20% fee is automatically applied to the fare and the credit card on file for the customer is charged.
I can see two big advantages to this system for customers. The transactions are entirely automatic so we don't have to worry about calculating a tip, having change, or checking that the debit or credit machines are working. Information-rich, emailed receipts are also convenient. Watching the cab arrive on a GPS-powered map is much more informative than the standard "10 to 15 minutes" line that switchboard operators give even if it's really going to be six or 30 minutes.
The drivers I spoke to, all offered their endorsement of the service based on their positive experiences. Uber doesn't charge a fee to drivers which beats the pants off the $500/month that companies like Beck and Royal charge. The arrival alert text messages mean that customers are more likely to be waiting out front for them and the automatic service fee (10% goes to the driver and Uber keeps the other 10%) is better than the average of what they'd usually get when depending on voluntary tips. Mohammed (all drivers asked that I only use their first name) summed it up by saying "this is the future with services like Uber, not with the old guys."
Customers upset by the automatic tip can extract a bit of satisfaction by leaving drivers they don't feel deserve it a bad rating on the automatic review when prompted. I'm not sure what impact bad reviews will have though; as far as I can tell Uber connects you to the nearest taxi no matter what their rating is.
The details on the free-ride promotion are fairly simple. The first $20 of any taxi ride completed by
Wednesday, September 26 at 11:59 PM Friday, September 28 at 3:00 PM will be covered by Uber with any balance billed to the customer. The service fee is added before the $20 deduction is applied so the meter will have to read $16.70, or so, for the ride to be gratis. Obviously free rides make for a popular service so during rush hours it has been difficult to find an available cab if you aren't in the financial district. I've had luck–at both 9 AM and 6 PM from midtown–after a few immediate retries at calling a taxi, but be sure you are in the right mode because Uber will automatically switch to the more expensive Black Car mode if it can't fill a request in the Taxi mode. There are no limits on the number of free rides you can take before Wednesday at midnight Friday at three pm.
Other than customers frustrated by the stretched capacity and drivers too busy for their afternoon coffee, Uber seems to have hit on a successful promotion. The old-guard taxi fleet companies will obviously respond, but whoever offers services like this will likely be the future as this seems to be the direction the industry is heading.
Update: Shortly before the promotion ended, Uber announced that they were extending it to Friday at 3 PM.
Written by David Ort
As one of Spotlight’s contributing editors, David enjoys turning his mind (and keyboard) to a wide variety of topics ranging from recipes to restaurants to craft beer. When he’s not writing for Spotlight Toronto, David shares his thoughts on new restaurants and beer at PostCity.com and all things food and drink on his own site, Food With Legs.