No-Cash Cabs

December 16, 2011

My reaction to the D.C. Taxicab Commission’s decision to approve a fare hike for 2012: yawn. That’s because my days of hailing — and hoping I have enough cash in my wallet to make it to my destination — could be over.

This week marked the official Washington-area launch of Uber, an iPhone and Android app designed to make you feel like you have a private driver at your beck and call. Sign up with your credit card info, and you’re ready to ride. The app maps the nearest Uber vehicles (a mix of town cars, SUVs and Mercedes-Benzes from local companies) and offers an estimated wait time. When you tap for a pickup, you can track as the driver heads to your location and you’ll get a text when the car is 30 seconds away. Then just hop in, say where you’re going and get out at your destination. No cash changes hands.

Washington is the seventh city for the rapidly expanding tech company that crunches usage data to make sure enough cars are on the streets and in the right spots. Across the network, the goal is to have wait times capped at five to 10 minutes. That requires knowledge of the cities, which is why Uber has employees in D.C. focused on understanding the lay of the land.

“For us, one of the big opportunities is the gap between the cab experience and the Uber experience. The quality of cabs can be lower here than in other cities,” notes D.C. general manager Rachel Holt. Not only are Uber vehicles guaranteed to be comfortable (several offer water, mints and newspapers for riders), but the drivers have extra incentive to put riders at ease because users can rate them after each trip.

The concept may sound like it’s designed just for lobbyists, but Holt describes it as “affordable luxury.” And although the company aims to price its services at about 1½ to two times the price of a cab ride in any given city, D.C.’s extensive list of additional charges made that task tricky. Uber’s base rate here is $7, and then it’s $3.25 for each mile and 75 cents for each minute of travel time. You’re charged the time rate when you’re traveling at or below 11 mph and the distance rate when you’re going faster. And there’s a $15 minimum.

That’s higher than the standard cab rates: $3 base fee, $1.50 for each mile. But when you add in the cabs’ $1 fuel surcharge, $2 dispatch fee for requesting a ride by phone and $1.50 per additional passenger, it’s possible to see how four people taking a short trip might save money with Uber. Did I mention Uber’s rate includes a tip?

If even someone as ridiculously cheap as I am sees the benefit in paying more to ensure a convenient, hassle-free ride, that’s bad news for cabbies in this city. But maybe it’ll be the push they need to up their level of service and finally implement a system to accept credit cards.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express.
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