Sometime in the late 1800s, a human being hailed the first motorized taxi. I don’t know how it was done — whether it was summoned in advance or if the person simply raised a hand on a street corner — but I’m pretty certain it wasn’t done with a mobile phone.
More recently, people have been hailing cabs using smartphone apps, both in the U.S. and abroad. These apps are meant to help you flag down a cab in markets where taxis are in low supply. Or, you can time your cab, so it will arrive just as you’re stepping out the front door or leaving a bar or restaurant.
On the flip side, the apps can help drivers fill their down time with more passengers.
In case you’ve missed it, these apps have caused quite a stir in some municipalities. Both taxicab and black-town-car groups have lobbied against various forms of so-called “e-hail” apps. In New York City, where I live, the political and regulatory environment had kept the apps out for a while. Now they’re finally part of a test pilot in New York, in which only certain features of the apps are available.
So I’ve been using Hailo, Taxi Magic and Uber Taxi for the past week to hail licensed taxicabs. They’re all free to download, and are available on iOS and Android mobile devices.
I was looking forward to trying them out here in my home city, which has more than 13,200 licensed taxicabs. Unfortunately, they’re sort of useless here in their current form.
On many occasions, while I was trying to locate cab drivers through the apps, other people would step in front of me, stick their hands up and snag a cab in less than 30 seconds. Or, I would request a cab through an app, and three available taxis would whiz by.
But the biggest sticking point right now is the lack of e-payments through the apps. In almost every other city where “e-hail” apps are available — London, Dublin, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, to name a handful — you not only hail through the app, you also pay through it. This creates a more seamless experience.
For example, I’ve used an app called Flywheel a few times in San Francisco. I hailed with my smartphone, set a tip through the phone, and exited the cab without ever exchanging cash with the driver or swiping a credit card. Afterward, I was emailed a digital receipt.
In cities where you can pay for your ride through the app, a small fee of $1 or $1.50 might be placed on top of your fare.
In order for these apps to offer e-payments in licensed New York City taxicabs, they are currently required to link to one of the two payments-processing companies (VeriFone and Creative Media Technologies) that are already established in cabs. I’m told that this feature might be coming to one or some of the apps soon.
A bit of background on them: Hailo hails from the U.K., which is still its biggest market. Uber is a San Francisco-based company best known for its handy app that hails black town cars; Uber Taxi is part of the same app, but books less expensive taxicabs instead of town cars. Virginia-based Taxi Magic claims to have the biggest footprint of all three, and is available in 60 cities across the U.S.
The apps work by using your GPS location to pinpoint you on a map within each app. You can also enter a specific street address. They’ll give you an estimate of how long it will take a taxi driver, who has to be using a driver-specific version of the app, to pick you up. This is usually within three to 10 minutes.
The apps send text messages along the way to keep you updated on the driver’s progress. Most also give you a direct phone number for the cabbie, in case you need to give more specific directions, or cancel. There’s often a fee associated with a last-minute cancellation after you’ve already confirmed a cab through the app.
The first time I tried e-hailing, I was standing on a street corner on the Upper West Side, and an available cab just rolled up in front of me. So I didn’t bother requesting a cab through an app that time.
The next time I was on that same corner, Hailo and Taxi Magic couldn’t locate any available cabs. Uber Taxi found a cab for me. Since I’ve used Uber’s town-car-hailed service before, this process was familiar to me. The main difference was not being entirely certain whether the Yellow Cab that pulled up in front of me was an Uber taxi.
After a few minutes, a taxi driver stopped in front of me, asked if I was using Uber, and I hopped in the cab. That was the extent of the verification process.
On another occasion, I successfully booked a Hailo cab. But again, I kept seeing available cabs pass by while I waited.
I also tried my luck in busier midtown Manhattan. I booked an Uber taxi again (still no Taxi Magic cabs available). In the app, I watched a small taxi icon make its way toward me on a map, but it seemed to take an indirect route. Eventually, the taxi stopped — nearly a block away from where I was. So I ended up walking down the street to meet the driver, while available cabs drove by.
Of the three apps, I had the best experience with Uber Taxi. It’s the one that most frequently had drivers available, and the one I relied on when I was stuck in a remote part of Manhattan on a rainy day.
I was never able to book a cab using the Taxi Magic app.
To be fair, each app has some features that you wouldn’t get from just hailing a taxi. Hailo, for example, has a note-taking section in the app. I could note whether my cab ride was for business or personal reasons, and jot down other details about the ride. Taxi Magic lets you book cabs from the Web — not just from the mobile app.
And while Uber’s town-car service has faced opposition in some cities, from a customer perspective, it’s good to have that option within the same app. If you’re ever in a jam and you can’t get a yellow taxicab, you can always splurge and request a town car.
Mobile apps have enabled a whole new world of modern transportation — whether for town cars, taxicabs or ride sharing, the latest of which has been a real point of contention in cities like San Francisco.
But in New York City, the tech hasn’t yet made a real difference. Hailing a cab the “old-fashioned” way is still your best bet.