I didn't understand why Uber was so popular until late in 2014. On a business trip to Melbourne my colleague took out his iPhone and booked us an Uber ride from the airport into the city.
Having survived the taxi ride from Melbourne airport before (in legitimate fear for my life at times) I was willing to give it a try. We were picked up by a professional driver in a Mercedes and had one of the most pleasant rides into Melbourne that I've ever experienced. That evening we repeated the experience for the return journey in a similarly nice car, the exact make and model escapes my mind right now.
A week later I signed up for Uber and used it late on a Saturday night to get from a wedding to a bar nearby, which took less than 15 minutes from booking to destination, while other wedding guests waited outside the venue for the taxis they had called.
We've used it a few times since, heading out to dinner or getting home again after a night in the city.
How it Works
I know a lot of people who have never used Uber so I'll take a moment to describe the user experience.
First, you sign up (via the website or smartphone app) and do the usual email verification and add some payment details (yes they store your payment details).
Using the app to book a ride is simple enough. Launch the app, wait a few seconds for location services to work out where you are and where the nearest Uber cars are (you'll see them on the map). You can get an estimate for your fare and book a ride if you're happy with the price.
You then immediately see the name and contact details for the driver, the make/model/registration of the vehicle, and how far away they are. The first time I showed this to my wife she was quite impressed at how we could watch the car navigate its way to us on the phone, accurate to within a few seconds as it appeared at the end of the street.
The driver's contact details are especially useful if there is any special requests, such as meeting in a specific place or driving to a particular side of the building because it's raining.
Once you are in the vehicle the driver already knows your name and where you're going, and has it in their GPS nav system already. When you arrive at the destination it is a simple goodbye and that's the end of it. All the payment is handled on the backend automatically. You'll get an email receipt that includes a map showing the route you took. Having been in a taxi overseas that was taking a winding route to milk a bigger fare from us this was a particularly nice touch.
Why it Works
The number one benefit of Uber is convenience. When you need a ride and you can see an Uber car is available in 5 minutes, that sure beats trying to call a taxi or find your way to the nearest cab rank.
The second big benefit for me is the quality. I've ridden in a lot of taxis in my adult life and the vast majority of the rides were terrible in some way – bad driving, bad smells, bad navigation, bad attitudes, arguments over payment methods, unsafe vehicles. In contrast, every Uber ride so far has has ranged from pleasantly unremarkable to downright enjoyable. The cars are clean and well maintained, the drivers polite and unobtrusive, and the navigation and payment system avoids any friction between driver and passenger.
I realise it's not fair to compare a handful of Uber rides to hundreds of taxi rides. I still use taxis, but aside from those few times that you score a very new taxi or a Silver Service car they continue to disappoint in various ways.
Another benefit is security. When I step out of a bar at 2am unless I can see a taxi rank a short distance away I'd much rather order an Uber to my location than wander the streets trying to find a cab. The is especially important in unfamiliar places.
Finally, the price is the same as a taxi a lot of the time. In fact, I've had Uber rides that I'm sure have cost me less than the same route in a taxi has. Sure there is the surge pricing during times of high demand, but frankly there are probably times when I would pay surge prices if I urgently need to be somewhere.
When it Doesn't Work
Uber hasn't been the perfect solution for me. As we prepared to head out one evening I checked for Uber cars in the area and found none. With no Uber fare or time estimate available I booked a taxi instead, and we still arrived on time.
When the city trains were shut down by a storm and I was supposed to pick up my kids from school I checked Uber only to see 4.0x surge pricing in effect, and decided to try another option instead.
When you want to get a large group of people from point A to point B at the same time, a maxi-taxi is more likely to suit your needs than an Uber.
If you are in an area where Uber drivers don't hang about, a taxi may be your only option.
Uber's rise in various markets around the world has not been without controversy:
- There is criticism about Uber being an expensive taxi service for the wealthy, a fashionable status symbol, and exploiting poor people (the drivers). On the other hand, nobody has been impressed by me using Uber, the rides cost about the same as a regular taxi, and the quality of the vehicles suggests the drivers aren't so much “poor” as perhaps “trying to earn a little extra on the side” (two drivers we talked to were both doing it to help pay for their eldest kids' university expenses).
- There has been some issues with Uber's use of customer data and approach to privacy. This is a concern for me too as I am constantly working to balance my online existence with the privacy of my family and friends.
- Surge pricing (that some see as price gouging), which I believe to be an automatic algorithm, has kicked in at times that make it appear Uber is exploiting tragedy.
- Drivers harassing passengers, assaulting them, being involved in fatal traffic accidents.
- Drivers unhappy with their real earnings (they get 80% of the fare, but have to pay for vehicle expenses).
Most of the issues above came to my attention after my first few Uber rides. I have continued to use Uber, and each time I do I consider those issues.
Am I contributing to the issues of social and wealth inequality by using Uber?
Am I at more risk for my personal safety when I use Uber instead of a taxi?
Is my private information being exploited by Uber?
Am I only using them because it makes me feel good to summon a private car via my smartphone?
Am I participating in damage to a legitimate industry (taxis)?
For now I am not convinced that Uber is a bad thing. The more I think about it the more I feel that I don't really care whether Uber wins or loses, or whether they simply carve out a slice of passenger services for themselves and leave the rest to the taxi industry.
What I really want, and I hope happens, is that taxis get better. There's an app for Yellow Cabs on my phone next to the Uber app now. It gives me an estimate of how long I will need to wait and lets me make a booking to my location. But it doesn't show me driver ratings, any driver details, handle payments on the backend, or give me any confidence about the quality of the vehicle and driver I'll be getting.
Rather than fight Uber and try to block them with legal action I would rather see taxi companies step up and try to compete against them on merit. Until they do, and until they are better, I'll continue to use Uber when it is available.