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Give Uber a chance to improve region's taxi service

Give Uber a chance to improve region's taxi service

Taxi service in the Capital Region may not be quite as pitiful as a couple of local restaurateurs ma

Taxi service in the Capital Region may not be quite as pitiful as a couple of local restaurateurs make it sound when they press their case for the region’s mayors to let Uber, the 21st century car-ride service, join the fray.

But at least some of what they complain about should be familiar to anyone who lives in or has visited Albany, Schenectady or Troy and tried getting around in a taxi.

It’s hard to imagine Uber — or any other company that’s not entrenched via contractual monopoly and thus must perform if it wants to stay in business — doing much worse than the handful of cab companies that provide what passes for service in the Capital Region.

In pressing their call to the mayors of Albany, Schenectady and Troy to let Uber provide some much-needed competition to the tightly controlled Capital Region cab market, Matt Baumgartner and Vic Christopher cite dispatchers who act like they’re doing you a favor just to answer the phone; long waits for cabs that are barely fit to ride in; ambiguous fares; and a need to share rides with other passengers (all charged full fare) at peak times.

They say none of these conditions is acceptable for a growing region trying to upgrade its image, attract young professionals, etc. And they’re right.

Uber (or another of the web-based car services gaining in popularity in cities of all sizes the past few years) wouldn’t necessarily fix these problems, but the competition would undoubtedly force the long-entrenched companies to address them.

With Uber, a customer orders a ride with a smartphone app, so there’s no wait (or need) for surly dispatchers. Uber drivers (who are subject to background checks and must drive clean, late-model cars) respond, also via smartphone, if they want to pick up the customer. The customer gets an estimate on the fare before being picked up, (though the final amount can vary, depending on traffic), and an approximate pick-up time. He can monitor the driver’s route with his smartphone and thus pinpoint the driver’s arrival.

After the ride — paid via smartphone with a pre-established account — the customer gets to rate his driver for performance, car cleanliness, etc. The driver’s continued employment depends on these customer satisfaction ratings, a system that tends to ensure good service. A similar rating system exists for passengers. Tipping is not allowed, and thus doesn’t affect customer ratings. So everyone is on their best behavior.

Uber fares are demand-driven to some degree; they go up at rush hour and during downpours, when everyone’s looking for one. But its off-peak rates are comparable to established cab companies’ rates. If they weren’t, only rich people would be customers.

Baumgartner and Christopher are right: If a service like Uber were available in the Capital Region, more people would rely on it instead of personal vehicles. That would reduce traffic and air pollution, help keep drunks off the roads and make parking easier. It would also provide more part-time jobs for people in an economy that relies more on them.

Best of all, the competition would force entrenched cab companies to clean up their acts — which is what the region has been trying to get them to do, with mixed results at best, for decades.

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