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Taking a ride in an Uber taxi

It’s one thing to read a Guardian piece complaining about Uber. That certainly makes Uber seem like a fine thing, but you can’t trust everything you read, can you? Maybe Uber is not actually as great as the Guardian is making it appear. Last Friday evening, a week ago, by a lucky chance, I went one better. I had an actual trip in an Uber-taxi. It was a good experience.

Rooted as I am in the twentieth century, I was not the one who set this journey in motion. The man who did was my twenty first century friend Rob, who is as computer-savvy as I am computer challenged. I and Rob were guests at a dinner party, and I heard that he and another guest had some kind of lift home fixed, going back towards central London, and I asked if I could join in. Yes, fine. I then rather delayed things by taking what turned out to be rather too long to do my thankyous and farewells, because, basically, I am not used to taxis being this fast in answering the call. But, eventually I was aboard, and off we went.

It was only when I was in it that I learned that this was one of these new-fangled Uber taxis, this being why it had arrived so quickly to pick us up and why I should have been quicker off the mark when leaving the party.

What Rob had done, as soon as he and the other guest decided they needed to be off home, was crank up the Uber app on his smartphone and summon – and here’s the point of this system – the nearest Uber taxi, by looking for blobs on his smartphone Uber-map.

On our journey, we and the driver chatted about how the new system worked. New technology often has this effect, I find. It gets people talking. It reminded me a bit of the early days of blogging, which got all sorts of people in touch with each other who would never normally have been communicating.

Our driver preferred his new Uber-life partly because he now gets no grief from a demanding taxi-cab office with its rigid time and place demands and general stress and hassle. He now eludes that middle man and, via his new and improved middle man (Uber), instead relates directly to his passengers. There is an elaborate regime to register both complaints from drivers about passengers, and from passengers about drivers, but for a driver who wants to do an honest job, that’s all good, just as it is for passengers who are willing and indeed eager to behave themselves.

We passengers also like the service that the driver and his comrades provide, because it is cheaper than old-school taxis, and quicker, and easier to track. But given that Uber is so cheap for us passengers, and given that the driver pays twenty percent of the reduced fare that we pay him to Uber, how come the driver is nevertheless such a contented guy?

A big plus for the driver is that he now works exactly when he likes, that being what a lot of the grief between him and his former taxi office had been about. He can start and stop when he pleases, with no warning concerning either, provided only that he finishes all paid-for journeys he embarks on.

But just as impressive as the increased flexibility the driver enjoys is that the flip side of us having hailed the nearest Uber taxi to us when we wanted to start our journey is that our driver is immediately available to start his next useful journey just as soon as he has completed his previous one. Our driver had been taking someone to that particular part of suburban London, and within moments there we were, wanting him to take us back to the middle of London from that same out-of-the-way spot. He doesn’t have to drive back, empty, to some damn taxicab office. He resumes work at once. This is why Uber-taxis are cheaper. This is not done by lowering the standard of living of the drivers or the quality of the product. It is done by seriously improving the efficiency of the drivers and their vehicles.

You can tell that Uber is a massive efficiency gain by the fact that the regular black cab drivers are in a state of fury about it, and have been threatening to screw up London’s traffic, with some kind of demo/disruption or suchlike. Their excuse is that there is apparently some law or other which, in the opinion of the cabbies and their lawyers, these new Uber-taxis are breaking, concerning computer tracking or something. But such complaining seems likely only to publicise that if the law is getting in the way of Uber, then it should stop.

If you want some more jeering at those angry black cabbies, see what City A.M.’s Guy Bentley has to say about them.

That the black cabbies are demonstrating against Uber in particular, rather than against “Kabbee, Hailo, Addison Lee, GetTaxi, Uber and Green Tomato” merely serves to establish Uber in the public mind as the market leader. I daresay there are also “network” reasons why one big brand leader is advantageous to most customers. So, big win for Uber, I’d say.

I am sure that there are many, many tweaks to Uber that I am not even remotely aware of, the kind where not only do I not know the answer but where I had never even thought of the question. But presumably Uber-savvy commenters can fill in many more details.

In particular: what could go wrong? Our driver didn’t seem to have any worries. But, was he perhaps being a tad optimistic? Will his income maybe decline if lots more want in on the driving side of things? What about if robot cars join in, and snatch away his job? Great for us passengers, because if it’s not it won’t catch on. But not so great for our driver.

Once you start talking about systems like Uber and robot cars in the same sentences, is the longer term implication of things like Uber going to be: fewer privately owned cars? Will Uber 3.0 be the first robot car killer app?

But oh yes, back in the here and now, one further detail I do now remember the driver talking about. If you are an Uber customer based in Los Angeles (as a recent passenger of his was), you can use the exact same account to whistle up our London driver as you have already been using in LA. The exact same account. Think about that. In any Uber-enabled city, and there are now a lot of such cities around the world, you can use taxis with the kind of confidence you already have about Uber-taxis in your own back yard.

My guess would be that a characteristic Uber first time user is someone who is about to venture to a foreign city where Uber is in action, and he signs up for Uber beforehand, so that he knows his taxis in the strange foreign landed will then be sorted at non-punitive expense and without grievous risk. Where he lives, he has a car and trusts the local taxis. But in foreigner-land, Uber taxis will be a massive plus. Then, once he has sampled the service in a strange city, the obvious next thing will be to use it back home more regularly. If that’s all approximately right, you can see why the black cabbies are spitting blood.

But alas for the black cabbies, their complaints are only advertising Uber to a global audience of city-hopping tourists and businesspersons. London’s black cabs are famous the world over. So if they are now moaning about Uber, that’s a global story. With enemies like this, Uber hardly needs an advertising agency.

But that’s enough guessing from me about Uber. Over to our commenters and their amazing ability to share a collective conversation with us and with each other, thanks to the work of an earlier generation of computer-magicians.

33 comments to Taking a ride in an Uber taxi

  • Rob

    Brian I am glad you enjoyed the journey — it was fun. It cost a little over £20 which I was genuinely astonished by. I reckon a black cab would have cost somewhere between 50%-100% more.

  • Patrick

    Of course the efficiency of service and experience of the customer is what really counts here – not protecting the narrow interest of the producer.

    In the pre-internet age doing The Knowledge gave cabbies an information advantage. Today? A waste of time. I have The Knowledge too – on my smartphone. So does Uber.

  • Patrick Crozier

    The black cab racket is one of the oldest in the country. I believe it dates back to the time of Charles II. So, if they succeed in overturning it well done them.

  • ike

    Ride-sharing prices are never the same. They are not even regulated. Add to it the corporate-controlled price-surging and you have troubles brewing in public transportation under pretense of innovation.

  • They are not even regulated

    And this is a bad thing? Not sure I understand what you mean.

  • Richard Thomas

    I think he means that at times when many drivers might not be inclined to be out, prices would go up, encouraging more drivers to be out to service client needs. Which is a terrible thing and detrimental to the Great British custom of piss-poor service.

  • llamas

    Today’s Uber/Lyft/Sidecar is merely yesterday’s ‘Knowledge’ – the knowledge advantage that networked and rationalized London’s taxi service in the days of hansom cabs. But, like the hansom cab, the ‘Knowledge’ and all of the regulatory arcana that accompanies it has been overtaken by a better knowledge advantage. Complaining about it, and trying to find ways to outlaw it, is like a wearer of Doggett’s Coat and Badge trying to outlaw powered watercraft.

    Myself, I would have thought that London cabbies would find a way to leverage their awesome reputation, am intangible advantage over which they hold a complete monopoly, into some sort of auto-hailing system like Uber, and go for the double top to win. But I guess that obsolete systems encourage obsolete thinking.



  • neptune

    Uber is to Black cabs what the ecig is to cigarettes. Tears are always shed when disruptive technology upsets the apple cart. King Canute revisited.

  • Sam Duncan

    “detrimental to the Great British custom of piss-poor service.”

    Heheh! 🙂 And also what Llamas said about the Knowledge. It was a perfectly good idea in its day, however that day has now passed. We have cheaper and easier (not to mention free-er, less bureaucratic) ways to achieve the same end now. I’m not sure if we have Uber in Glasgow, but even the local minicabs are vastly better than they were even a decade ago thanks to satnav that actually works.

    Just don’t call those Guardianistas who oppose all this “conservative”…

  • Alastair James

    I was in Hong Kong a few weeks ago. Lying in bed at 3 in the morning with jet lag I was surfing idly through the TV channels and caught the following story. Apparently in China there are two dominant Internet taxi booking companies, both private entrepreneurial start ups. Some small city I’d never heard of (just a couple of million inhabitants) had announced that it was banning these apps and insisting people book through a call centre the city had established for this purpose. The ostensible reason was that taxis would no longer stop when hailed in the street and older people who didn’t use smart phones were being disadvantaged. The presenter, a Chinese lady with very good English, interviewed an economist from a Chinese university who said that was an unnecessary intervention by the City in the market. Young people on the street said the apps were very good and the City call centre was inefficient. Old people said it was a nuisance they found it harder to hail a cab but they supposed it was progress. One of the Internet entrepreneurs said they were aware of the issue and were planning to set up their own call centre. The taxi drivers said the city should butt out. The city spokesman defended himself against some fairly pointed questioning and the economist concluded that the city should leave it to the market. The channel was the English language version of CCTV which Wikipedia tells me is the dominant state TV channel in mainland China. Perhaps they could buy the BBC?

  • Mr Ed

    Well I’m going to rain on Uber’s parade by saying that they might offer better service, they might not be using rapists/thieves as their drivers, they might be (yawn, f**@ off) helping the environment by reducing fuel usage with efficient working methods, but they will affect the viability of the iconic black cab that so many visitors and locals associate with London, so they should be banned on aesthetic grounds alone.

    Oh dear, I have just had a Lefty tizzy, I had better grab a beer and relax, and point out that I once saw a London style black cab (with a City of Liverpool Taxi registration plate) in Tindouf. I did have to laugh wondering if a Scouser’s taxi had been nicked and well and truly hidden. I should declare an interest in that when at University I worked as a Private Hire Driver for 2 years, and made sometimes as much as £1.60 an hour on quiet summer days, sometimes £5 an hour (add 70% for inflation). I found taxi drivers often were arrogant sods eager to guard their privileges. I could only take pre-arranged bookings radioed through by the bookman in the office (Pete, a true gentleman, it should be said).

    I dare say the government might actually like Uber, with its database being a rich source of information about people’s movements…

  • As a transport professional, I can tell you that the trade press has been gabbing on about this for quite a while. The ONLY objection about Uber is that of licensing. Nothing else.

    They can provide a much better, more convenient, more sustainable, more convenient, simpler, more trackable, and safer service – which they do – but black taxis (and the private hire trade who are enemies of the cabbies on every issue but this one) are arguing that Uber should be banned because they don’t have to dance through the same regulatory hoops.

    There is no talk of trying to compete by upping their own game, merely calls for Uber to be drawn into the same stifling licensing arrangements that black cabs and private hire resist as far as they can usually. Corporatism, pure and simple, and fostered by politicians who will stand up in parliament and argue against a service which is the future and – as you quite rightly say – is a boon to service users.

    The above is my précised take of column acres in the transport press, mostly venal and reactionary. Closed minds all round, and licensing as a bar to new benefits for the public.

  • Chip

    Use it occasionally in Singapore, but it’s much more expensive than the regular taxi.

  • Vinegar Joe

    Get Jarvis to be your driver…….


  • Tim Carpenter

    In China, the TianJin Economic Development Area, where I am this week, has an Uber-like mechanism, and there is talk about banning it.

    The pity for London is that the incumbents did not think of this first, and more fool them, but I do concur with Llamas, that they could still do it, and I hope they do.

    However, the rancid stench of steaming Luddite hangs in the air, mingled with Credentialism and the closed shop.

    The best outcome would be all parties upping their game and service improving. Now, we know about those who wail about price rises at times of high demand, but as ennie fule kno, capping prices creates a shortage. Scarcity will never go away, but a free market rarely creates a shortage when compared to price fixing.

    One thing about Singapore is different vehicles charge different rates. An old Crown (my favourite, as they are insanely spacious vs the other offerings, and hark back to the old HK cabs – 5 customer column-changers, if anyone cares) are £1.50 to flag down, while an (Indian made grey import) Merc 200 will be £2, with a higher km tariff. Some chancers think that a ghastly black Chevy 300 is worth £2.50 and a top end Kia can command the same as a Mercedes. Stock Hyundai Sonatas flag down at £1.60.

    The market means Chevys often cruise empty, even at morning peaks. Tough.

    I, for one, would prefer a “Black Cab” configuration, especially with four people, so it would be good to see how the market pricing works out if black cabs join in.

    Fact is, transparency and liquidity deals with most problems, but then we know who, out there, just cannot rest unless they can perfect The System to suit themselves…

    Regardless, once driverless vehicles emerge, all bets are off, and let the next round of disruption begin!

  • The Parisian taxi drivers have gone apeshit over this as well, this in a city which is famously impossible to get a taxi in after 11pm. The government, ever keen to back the special interest groups, have imposed a 15 minute inefficiency in the system.

  • Mr Ed

    The driverless ‘Johnny Cab’ in the film Total Recall failed to follow instructions and had to be commandeered by the film’s hero, leading to a unfortunate refusal to pay and an attempt at automated retaliation. Still if traffic flow were automated, with the right amount of processing power and algorithms it might be kept as harmonious as a murmuration of starlings, greatly improved traffic flow might result.

  • There is a huge amount of latent supply of taxis on the roads. There are lots of cars that are not being used most of the time, and plenty of car owners who are happy to make a few bucks if given the chance. You can discover this in almost any poor or middle income country by simply sticking out your hand as traffic goes past, ideally from a place where you see other people (locals) doing the same thing. Cars stop, you tell them where you are going, you agree on a price, and you pay them. Alternately, go into a restaurant, a bar, a cheap hotel, or even just a shop, and tell one of the staff you need a taxi. They will call somebody’s mobile, a price will be quoted and five minutes later, somebody with a car will appear. It will probably be their brother in law. However, you will immediately be taken where you want to go and charged the agreed price. You will normally then be given a card or at least a piece of paper with a phone number on it, and told to call it again next time you need a taxi.

    Getting in touch with this latent supply is much easier in poor countries than in rich ones. In rich countries, we have had centuries of regulatory capture in which privileged classes of taxi drivers or taxi owners have persuaded governments and regulators to let them extract monopoly rents by granting them monopolies and making the sort of impromptu taxi arrangements that take place otherwise illegal. Apps like uber don’t necessarily make these sorts of arrangements much easier than they should be already – they are more simply a new set of interests fighting regulators. I wish them well, obviously.

  • Tim (Carpenter). Vietnam is like this, too. Small taxis cost less than large taxis. (The operator is free to set the rates, I think, but what the rates are must be clearly written on the outside of the taxi). As a consequence, one of the most common vehicles used as a taxi is the Daewoo Matiz / Chevrolet Spark. This is a tiny vehicle, but perfectly fine if there is only one passenger (as is the case for a great portion of cab journeys) or there are other passengers who are price conscious enough to be willing to squeeze into that vehicle’s very small back seat.

  • I always thought it ludicrous that every London cab had to be suitable for 5 passengers, and never could fathom why Smart Cars could not be used.

  • Chip

    Took an old Crown taxi in Singapore today and the driver said they’re being scrapped in a few months.

    Shame. They’re really spacious.

  • Gary

    @Patrick Crozier. The black cabs were not a racket initially. They were a good answer to a classic game theory problem – I want to buy from you (as an individual driver), but I haven’t before and am not likely to do so again. I am therefore open to being ripped off. The answer to that problem across industries is invariably some combination of certification and/or branding (black cabs, co-op funeral parlours, etc).

    As is often the case, over time this solution evolves to answer a different question (how do I restrict supply to raise prices) but of course that just invites new entrants eventually as we are seeing now.

    But it wasn’t always a racket. It was originally a good answer to a real consumer problem.

  • Yes, good intentions…:-/

  • CaptDMO

    “What about if robot cars join in…”
    There will ALWAYS be Luddites like me that go out of their way to avoid “self check out” lanes and seek out an actual cashier. I’m usually amazed at “customer service” folk who seem annoyed as they seem “put out” of their busy day, and “have” to run my stuff through the “self check out” lane instead of actually operating the traditional lane themselves.

    (American) Public school education of Economics at it’s best.

    This is why I LIE to (apparently ‘puter initiated) surveys from “corporate” from my bank, implying absolute need for human intervention in my “Most recent Banking experience” transactions, and how (actual) tellers were absolutely perfect in “attending to my most recent banking needs”.
    Ironically (or not) the survey is ALWAYS via. human interaction, by an operator CLEARLY barely able to read “the script”.
    Maybe my stationary land line telephone number, and mandatory date-of-birth (50’s)on the account information, is a clue to them?

  • CaptDMO

    “What about if robot cars join in…”
    There will ALWAYS be Luddites like me that go out of their way to avoid “self check out” lanes and seek out an actual cashier. I’m usually amazed at “customer service” folk who seem annoyed as they seem “put out” of their busy day, and “have” to run my stuff through the “self check out” lane instead of actually operating the traditional lane themselves.

    (American) Public school education of Economics at it’s best.

    This is why I LIE to (apparently ‘puter initiated) surveys from “corporate” from my bank, implying absolute need for human intervention in my “Most recent Banking experience” transactions, and how (actual) tellers were absolutely perfect in “attending to my most recent banking needs”.
    Ironically (or not) the survey is ALWAYS via. human interaction, by an operator CLEARLY barely able to read “the script”.
    Maybe my stationary land line telephone number, and mandatory date-of-birth (50’s)on the account information, is a clue to them?

  • I think the fact that an uber account is transferrable across the whole world is a very positive innovation though. The rapaciousness of taxi drivers worldwide with respect to foreigners who possibly don’t speak the language and from who there is little chance of repeat business is such that I avoid taxis wherever possible when I am away from home, even in places where taxis are usually cheap. Fixing this problem would be quite a big step forwards.

  • Gi

    Can’t Black Cabbies leave their own organisation and join Uber?
    Sorry if it is a silly question: I live in Portugal and don’t know how your system works.
    Here we call the taxi company (there are several) call center and they send us whichever car is available in the neighbourhood.

  • Rich Rostrom

    our driver is immediately available to start his next useful journey just as soon as he has completed his previous one… He doesn’t have to drive back, empty, to some damn taxicab office.

    My god, what a brilliant piece of cutting edge innovation by Uber! They’ve achieved something that’s been done in Chicago for over 60 years.

    In the oh-so-Dark-Ages before the Internet, taxis were dispatched by radio. People who needed taxis called a taxi company’s office, the office passed the request to the dispatcher, and the dispatcher assigned the nearest available taxi to the call.

    It wasn’t as nifty-clean as now – there was an overhead of radio chatter for dispatchers to keep track of where taxis were, and mistakes happened. Whereas today GPS tracks all taxis continually, and a computer matches up calls and texts drivers.

    But it was reasonably efficient. I am rather surprised that London didn’t have it long ago.

  • Andrew Duffin

    Every taxi in my home town has to be an eight-seater. No, really, this is true – even if you are on your own, hail a cab and that is what it will be: a small bus. No choices. This rule has – of course – been imposed at the behest of the black cab drivers, as a barrier to entry.

  • Alsadius

    Uber’s technological innovation is not the realization that it’s better to carry passengers in both directions, or the ability to summon a taxicab from your phone. Its only meaningful innovation, and the one that has launched its business, is that it flagrantly ignores taxicab licensing laws. When you don’t spend half a million dollars(or whatever the cartel tax is in your local city) on a medallion, you can lower fares massively.

    Obviously, I’m against the cab cartel – it’s awful for everyone except a handful of owners who got in on the ground floor, most of whom are dead now. But let’s not kid ourselves. Uber is not a story of technological innovation, it’s a story of civil disobedience.

  • Kirk Parker

    Michael Jennings,

    I did exactly this on Curacao via the concierge of the (cheap? who knows? my employer booked it!) hotel I was staying at.

    When the (obviously friend-of-the-concierge obviously-not-a-commercial-taxi) then yes, I wished I was carrying like I do everywhere in my firearm-friendly home state in the US… but the fellow turned out to be legit, and even came back to pick me up after my appointment was done (on *island* time, mind you, but still he did show up.)


    You write that as if civil disobedience were a bad thing…

  • Steve Adams

    Just last night I was waiting for a very early flight at a smaller airport near New York. At 2:30am I was told the first leg of my flight was canceled. The airline was happy to book me on another flight 12hrs later or at the same time from an airport 40miles away. I took the same time at the different airport.

    I tried five regional taxi companies and got nowhere. Then I checked uber. I got a guy that did a decent job getting me to the other airport. He wasn’t great but at that point the alternative was to wait another few hours until the taxi people wake up then take the same expensive ride or manage the later opening mass transit/taxi combo trip.

    I was around $160 for the trip but worth it to me!!