One of Uber's most appealing features is that it isn't providing taxis. So what should taxi services implement to fight off Uber's customer-snaffling ways?
The war between registered taxi services and Uber is a particularly nasty one, with all sorts of accusations, counter-accusations and anecdotal evidence thrown around to show one side or another in a good light.
The reality here is that it's not a fight that we as consumers should view as being between the "good" and "bad" guys, because, like most businesses, each has its own rather repellant habits. For all the cheerleading that goes on around Uber, it has been guilty of some pretty serious issues when it comes to fair dealing with customers, and it's certainly not as though taxis are beyond criticism either.
Still, it's widely viewed that Uber is eating the regular taxi service's lunch on a wide scale. So what could taxi companies do to fight back?
Taxi fares are highly regulated, whereas Uber's on-demand "surge" pricing model isn't. This has led many to declare taxis as "too expensive" compared to some Uber fares. A good old-fashioned price war would be one way to take the battle direct to Uber, because if you could point to fares being markedly cheaper in a taxi rather than an Uber, customers should flock back. Uber is already varying its fares so this almost seems inevitable.
This wouldn't be an easy proposition, however, as taxi fares are very highly regulated by the taxi commisions in each state and territory, which means a lot of the bargaining power around fares isn't in the hands of individual taxi companies or drivers. It's a prospect that the industry may have to face, and that could include the kinds of variable pricing that Uber currently offers, which could have the obvious downside of higher fares at some time, as distinct from the general two-tier timed system that taxis use right now.
Nobody likes getting into a grubby, poorly maintained taxi that reeks of the last passenger and his half-eaten kebab. Absolutely nobody. But again, it's something that Uber sells itself on, and it's again an issue that taxis could address on a rather larger scale.
The downside here — and at least part of the reason why some taxis can appear quite grubby — is that taking the time to clean would reduce the amount of time a taxi was on the road, lowering general availability. Part of the reason why a taxi can look worn out is that it has borne the backsides of hundreds of travellers in a given week. Cleaning it every time would make it nicer, but it would also keep it out of circulation for a while.
Get in there and break some kneecaps
Actually, no. This isn't a gritty 1930s crime drama here. Don't do this.
It's been a long, slow grind towards the kinds of features that Uber offers for taxi services, most of which still rely on phone centres and web sites that look like they fell off the back of Geocities circa 1998. Yes, there are taxi-specific apps available, but there's no one solution the way there is with Uber. Given Cabcharge is pretty much universal across taxis, why isn't there an Australian taxi app decked out with all the extras?
An app-based approach with some quality coding would go a long way to attracting customers, simply because it would make it a lot easier to work out where a nearby cab rank was with available cars, or make it clear where a booked cab was. There's even advertising potential in there, so taxis could spruik for additional business in quiet times.
Ever had a taxi booked for a specific time, only to find it either turns up late, or never at all?
The chances are that if you've ever booked a taxi, this has happened to you. It has certainly happened to me more than once.
To get entirely anecdotal, one recent instance saw a taxi booked with a cabcharge that had been supplied to me, which meant that taxis were my sole option for this particular trip.
I'd booked the cab for 2:00pm, and when it rolled around, there was no cab to be seen. Or at 2:05, 2:10 or 2:15. At that point I hightailed it via a lift to a nearby train station where there was a cab rank and got into the first available taxi, only just making it to my appointment on time. En route, around 2:35, I got a call from the cab company I'd booked through to say the driver was now waiting outside my office.
Needless to say, I wasn't thrilled with this, and told them I'd already got myself into a cab, and if they wanted my business, perhaps turning up on time would have been appropriate. As per the terms of my booking, it's feasible the next time that I have to book a cab, they may refuse to take my booking because I didn't "take" that one.
Sorry, but that's consumer-antagonistic garbage, and it should be thrown out entirely.
The comparison with Uber, where I'd have been able to track the progress of an incoming car, isn't one that favours taxis.
I do get that mistakes happen, and roads get busy, so here's how the taxi companies could solve this and gain significant consumer traction along the way.
Adopt the clichéd pizza delivery model with regards to late bookings. Not necessarily a free trip per se, but if you've made a booking with a reasonable amount of upfront time — say, an hour or two — there's really no reason why that booking couldn't be tracked in real time and discounts offered by way of apology. That doesn't affect walk-up traffic or surge periods, but ensures that the customers who have specifically decided to use your services would continue to do so. If costed as a shared aspect of taxi income, it's not even something that should require changes to taxi fare structures, as simple verified discount certificates could be emailed out and checked in via Cabcharge's existing IT infrastructure.
Stop taxi drivers from refusing fares around shift change
Again, this is a pet peeve of mine, and the rules do seem to vary from state to state. But there's little worse than getting into a cab that peels away from the kerb, stating your destination and being told "Oh, no, I'm on the end of my shift. I'm not going there."
The only obvious solution to this would be external signalling, similar to the existing lighting that shows whether a taxi's available for flagging down in the first place. Show clearly and distinctly that you'll only do local area only, and this problem disappears entirely, as long as the drivers remember to put the light on. Fail to do so if such a scheme were adopted, and I'd say it's fair that the driver has to accept any and all fares.
What do you think? Are there steps that taxis could or should undertake to take on Uber? Have your say below!
Lifehacker Australia contributor Alex Kidman usually tries to catch trains. The Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.