Picture it: New York City, 2006. I’m standing in front of the Jacob Javits Center following a brutally long day of auto show press conferences. The wind is driving the drenching rain sideways, ensuring that no umbrella can provide protection from the bone-chilling damp.
Along with every other show attendee, I’m desperately trying to hail a cab, but despite their ubiquity, every passing taxi’s top light is off and I’m silently cursing the riders inside who are warm and dry. Rinse and repeat for about an hour or so.
Little did I know that in just a few years time – and with just a few taps – my smartphone would allow me to request a ride, and that I’d be able to wait inside and know exactly when the car would pull up, what kind of car it would be, and who would be driving it.
Big city taxi service was never a perfect system, and companies like Uber and Lyft became game changers for a reason. In just under a decade, Uber has caused a seismic shift in the way we get places.
Symbiotically joined by the omnipresence of smartphones and navigation apps (Uber could not exist without them), it’s hard to remember a time before its existence. In essence, Uber has become the de facto term for ride-hail and rideshare service. Even the company’s name is a verb: “I’ll Uber over” has overtaken “I’ll catch a cab” in our vernacular.
Does this mark the demise of the iconic yellow cab? It certainly seems so. And in many ways, the rise of Uber and Lyft are prime examples of capitalism and the free market at work. Create a superior product and people will choose to use it.
But as with most things in life, it’s not quite that simple. In getting you from point A to point B, there are several factors that can determine your user satisfaction, and whether or not you enjoy a ride. Let’s take a look at some of them.
The Uber and Lyft apps are intuitive and easy to use, and offer people more transparency while taking the guesswork out of waiting for a cab or a shuttle. You know in advance where your ride is, when it will show up, and approximately how much you will pay.
You don’t need cash. You don’t need a credit card. Payment, including a tip, is made through the app. You can also choose the type of vehicle, whether you need a little more space for a group of people or you’re feeling flush and want to arrive at your destination in a luxury vehicle.
With a taxi, you have a bit of choice if you dispatch one, but if you’re standing in front of a hotel or by the curb, you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. In my experience over the years, I’ve ridden in some great cabs and ones that made feel like I needed a shower after the ride. Most are beaten up pretty bad, and some feel like a prison cell.
Conversely, if you use Uber or Lyft, a vehicle that fits your needs is likely to show up, but its interior could also be thrashed, or you might not get a good feeling from the driver. If you take a pass, you’ll have to pay the booking fee and a cancellation fee, or argue with the company as to why you bailed on the hail.
Shuttles, of course, are a completely different animal. You purposely book them in advance. For transporting your family to a destination like an airport, there’s no beating the passenger space and cargo flexibility of a shuttle. And if you don’t mind sharing with another passenger or two who is located nearby, you get an even better rate.
You might presume that Uber and Lyft are cheaper compared to a taxi, but that’s not always true. Uber has different rates for different circumstances, which means that, at times, you’re at the mercy of surge pricing, when prices can almost double in times of high demand. The cost is further variable depending on the city you’re in, traffic, and how far away your destination is.
Cab fares are typically fixed rather than variable, but since you’re likely not using an app to call one, you don’t know how far your destination is and how that translates in terms of the fixed per-mile or per-minute rate. If the driver takes the long way, or you wind up stuck in heavy traffic, your cab ride can get mighty expensive.
Shuttle pricing is transparent, evident when you book the ride. Plus, you’re sharing the van with other people, and while making a bunch of stops is no fun, you need to remember the money you’re saving.
Tipping is expected no matter the form of transportation you choose. Most riders tip their drivers between 15% and 20% of the fare. Initially, app-based ride-hailing companies promised users that tipping would be unnecessary. Naturally, drivers rebelled against this edict and now it’s up to you if you want to be generous or a jackass.
Don’t forget the intangible costs. With Uber and Lyft, you’re entrusting your personally identifiable information and a history of your whereabouts to a couple of tech companies, and tech companies have spotty records with regard to misusing that kind of information. With a shuttle, you’re also giving some sensitive information, but not to the same extent.
Compare these two situations to the relatively anonymous transaction of putting up your hand, hopping into a cab, and paying the driver in cash.
Of course, some people would consider it a matter of safety that their whereabouts are noted, and both Lyft and Uber allow you to communicate with a friend through the app. You can show them where you are, who is driving you, what kind of car it is, the license plate number, and when you’ll be arriving at your destination. That’s the upside of all that data collection.
Ridesharing companies developed this feature because some Uber and Lyft drivers have engaged in criminal behavior with riders, especially passengers who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs when they get into the car. Lyft has always run annual background checks on its drivers. ber didn’t start running consistent background checks until mid-2017 and announced in late 2018 that they will check criminal and DMV records every year.
Taxi drivers undergo extensive background checks. For shuttle drivers, this practice is not as consistent, though in recent years many states have enacted laws requiring them.
As far as insurance is concerned, you’re better off in a taxicab or a shuttle, each of which is required by law to have a commercial insurance policy in place. Many rideshare drivers – who typically drive part-time – don’t possess commercial insurance. This means that if you’re injured while you’re in a rideshare car, you may be on the hook for paying for your injuries.
Uber offers its drivers liability insurance, but some criticize its flimsy coverage. For instance, if a collision occurs while the Uber platform is closed – or if the driver’s phone loses its signal – the insurance will not cover the incident. Lyft covers all drivers with a much-touted million-dollar policy, but it, too, will cover only when the rideshare platform has been activated.
That’s not to say that taxis and shuttles are necessarily safer than ride-hail services. Rather, this illustrates that no one service holds the monopoly on the safest way to get you to your destination.
This is an intangible quality that might not directly affect your ride, but might be of interest to you.
When you open that Uber or Lyft app, you might think that you’re helping people who choose to participate in the gig economy, using their car for a side hustle. Ads tout that drivers can make up to $25 per hour, which sounds good for picking people up and dropping them off. Add flexibility in hours and the ability to choose when to work, and it sounds like the perfect way to make some extra money on the side.
But when it comes to actual pay, rideshare drivers don’t make that much money. The platforms take a 20-30% cut of every fare – an amount that can change at the companies’ whim – and after expenses like sales tax, fuel, and wear and tear on the car, many drivers end up earning less than minimum wage by driving for Uber and Lyft. Which is why they got so upset about the whole no-tipping thing.
App-based ridesharing companies also have a negative impact on taxi drivers in big cities, and not just because there are fewer passengers per vehicle. According to The New York Times, the city puts a limit on the number of taxis in the city at 13,500. But there are about 100,000 non-taxi for-hire vehicles trawling Manhattan’s busy streets. Cabbies used to be able to make a living by driving a hack full-time. Many can’t anymore.
This means that in some regions there are too many service providers competing for the same piece of the pie, meaning less money for everyone. As a result, New York is currently working on legislation to limit the number of rideshare drivers.
Yes, taxis are overregulated, and some argue that they’re a symptom of a bloated bureaucracy while pointing to Uber and Lyft as examples of the effectiveness of the free market. However, ride-hail drivers want rights and more regulation, too, and have formed guilds and unions in an attempt to collectively voice some of the concerns harbored by rideshare drivers. Those include increased pay, greater oversight, and putting a cap on hiring new drivers.
Choice Is a Good Thing
Anecdotally, I used rideshare apps for the first time last summer during two visits to the East Coast. Several times, it was a positive experience, and I could certainly see the appeal.
But other trips were noteworthy due to their lack of adherence to the norms. For instance, one Uber ride took us from our hotel in downtown Washington, D.C. to a friend’s house in suburban Maryland. Not only did the driver’s old vehicle emit only feeble amounts of air conditioning on a swampy summer day, but the driver also didn’t have an EZ Pass transponder that would allow him to access the toll road that was the fastest and shortest route. It added an unnecessary – and somewhat agonizing – 20 minutes to the trip on less safe 2-lane country roads.
Another Uber request resulted in a dude that showed up with a large hole in his loose green sweatpants that showed a big portion of his bare upper thigh. I had no qualms about getting into his car since I was with my burly husband, but if I were alone, it might have given me pause.
Progress is the name of the game, and no one should rely on old and outdated methods of going about their lives if there is a simpler and better way of completing tasks. Just be aware that no one holds a monopoly on the best way of doing business.
It’s a good thing to have a choice when it comes to getting where you need to be.