Seniors on the Go: Taxi apps face opposition

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You're outside a restaurant, want a cab to your hotel, but spot no cabs in the area. So you get out your smartphone, call up a taxi app, and the system tells a participating cab where you are. Your cab will arrive "within minutes," say the proponents; you pay by a stored credit card, including tip. That sounds like a great idea, doesn't it? Unfortunately, some industry pioneers have faced unwelcome opposition from entrenched interests. The country's best "taxi town," New York, temporarily seems to be off limits, so Boston is the current target, where two different outfits are ramping up operations, and you may see other cities soon.

Uber (uber.com) was the pioneer in this niche. It started its "beta" test in New York City earlier this year, but it had to pull out of the market after a short six-week run. The reasons aren't totally clear:

-- Proponents blame the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission's red tape, with rules that prohibit regular "yellow" cabs from accepting pre-arranged rides, even if pre-arranged minutes in advance. Also, the service was in violation of existing exclusive contracts with card payment processors.

-- Other reports, however, say that real problem is that not enough drivers signed up for the system to make it work properly -- allegedly due to pressure from the Taxi Commission.

According to press reports, the city administration wants to clear the way for more high-tech apps, so the restricting rules may be lifted early next year. Meanwhile, Uber still operates, but only for calling more expensive black car "limousines" rather than metered cabs. Uber hasn't given up, it's mounting an operation in Boston.

Uber isn't alone in Boston: A British-based operator, Hailo (hailocab.com), is also launching in Boston, and it says, it has already obtained the required city permissions. Hailo is already operating in Dublin, London, and Toronto, and is planning for Chicago and New York -- when it can. And San Francisco seems to be on both companies' short list.

Unfortunately, expansion apparently won't be easy. Regardless of how well the customers might like the idea, it requires special equipment in participating cabs, and thus it doesn't work unless it can sign up enough cabs. And some entrenched interests are fighting the idea, so expansion may be slow.

As far as I can tell, the two systems work in the same way. Free apps are available for both iPhone and Android.

Fortunately, several other U.S. cities have been more welcoming. Taxi Magic (its URL, ridecharge.com, refers to its former name) operates in more than 40 major U.S. cities, where it has a contract with at least one large cab company. And My Taxi (mytaxi.com), operating in Washington, D.C., (as well as in 30 European cities), provides a similar calling system.

System operators claim that beyond just the convenience, they improve the overall experience and provide the added security of fully vetted drivers. Also, they can provide fare estimates (although not actual prices) and let you track your cab before it arrives and as you ride.

The main problems users report are (1) that they couldn't get their system to work and (2) often, after they call a cab, they see several empties go by before their reserved cab arrives. Clearly, the problem of getting a system to work is undoubtedly solvable, and if you're in an area with lots of available cabs, you may be better off just hailing one. However, if you've ever come out of a restaurant or theater and found no available cabs, having this app can be a lifesaver. Signing up is free: you might as well give it a try.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins(at)mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)

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