Alex Dymoke on the minicab app that helped Londoners through the strikes
THIS is my second day on Uber. I went for my test day and they said I was ready to start right away,” Omar my minicab driver tells me excitedly. He is polite and chatty, reminiscing about the days before sat-nav and waxing lyrical about south-east London where I have just moved and where he has lived for thirteen years.
I have taken advantage of the Uber cab app’s promotional offer of half price split fares during the tube strike. The app, which links licensed cab drivers to potential customers via the GPS in their phones, has been helping Londoners traverse the capital since 2012. Turn it on and you see tiny car icons moving around a map of London like bugs crawling on an A to Z. To hail one, just select your pick up location and destination, and watch on your phone as the closest driver winds his way through the streets of London towards you. No more waiting in the rain, no more calling up the minicab office to ask what’s happened to your lift. Not only that, you also get your driver’s name and a smiley picture of him so you can get excited about all the delightful small talk you’re about to have on the way to your destination.
It works in a similar way to Hailo, but instead of traditional black cabs, Uber offers one of three classes of private hire experience: UberX, UberExec and Uber Lux. The latter includes Jaguars and Mercedes. Plump for the former and you’re likely to end up with a smart, mid-market saloon such as a Toyota Prius. Each class is priced accordingly, with the priciest (Lux) being no more expensive than a black cab fare on a Saturday night. Be warned, though – the system of “surge pricing” means fares increase at times of heightened activity (some say this is unethical, others argue it’s a logical way of managing demand).
Uber was founded in San Francisco in 2009 by Travis Kalanick. Funding from Google Ventures and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos allowed the company to go global, and now Ubers can be hailed all over the world from Mexico City to Tokyo. Last month, Beijing became the hundredth city to receive the service.
Uber’s voyage across the world hasn’t always been smooth. The service was banned in Brussels, Berlin and elsewhere after governments came under pressure from the private hire industry. According to the London general manager Jo Bertram, this won’t happen in the UK, because “Uber services in London are fully licensed with TFL as private hire services.” Will minicab offices as we know them become obsolete? “I see other minicab offices moving to apps and that seems to be a trend. I don’t think companies become obsolete it’s just that people tend to use tech more and more. We see it as an additional choice, not a replacement for additional transport infrastructure.”
The model has a flexibility that is popular with the drivers. “They all work as independently licensed individual operators. One of the beauties of the model is they can work as much or as little as they want. We’re not exclusive so a lot of the lux and exec guys do private jobs or with their own chauffeur company which the drivers really appreciate.”
When it comes to competition, it’s not just black cabs Uber has had to contend with. Addison Lee is also fighting to increase its share of the £3bn spent on cabs each year with its own app. The company has more cars on the road than Uber, and because they are controlled centrally it’s possible to order one hours in advance, which you can’t do with an Uber (you might not want to rely on an Uber to get you to the theatre, as you can’t be certain you’ll have a driver close by at the time you need to leave).
As the newest kid on a very old and crowded block, generous offers like the tube strike one have been instrumental in establishing Uber in London. “We believe so much in the experience,” says Bertram, “that we believe that if we can get a rider in the car to try out the service, see how good the service is and see the price at the end of it (even if it’s a free ride), they’ll ride again. That’s our marketing strategy and its been phenomenally successful.”
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