Why I Still Ride Cabs In San Francisco

Ridesharing is playing an important role in making cities easier and cheaper to get around; it's resulted in a far more functional system. But what I've learnt is that there is room for many different players in this space, and that their coexistence makes all of them stronger companies.
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In one version of the story of Uber's origins, founders Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp created the service out of frustration with San Francisco's transit systems. The city where the future is built can be quite difficult to get around in. Public-transit systems are outdated; there never seem to be enough buses or trains at rush hour; and hailing a cab on the street has been an unreliable proposition. Decades of policy efforts have not been able to improve the experience of getting around as much as Uber has in a few short years

I deeply believe in the ridesharing vision of a world without widespread car ownership. Two years ago, I went all in with the on-demand economy and sold my car to use services such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar for all my regular transportation needs. For the most part, it has worked out well. Choosing access over ownership has been far easier to adjust to than I'd originally expected it to be. I'm especially thrilled to not have find or pay for parking any more.

Lately, though, I've grown increasingly dissatisfied with several aspects of the ridesharing experience. I'm tired of having Uber and Lyft drivers cancel on me at the last second before surge pricing begins so that they can charge me a higher fare (although I understand why they do it). Rides frequently take longer to arrive than the apps suggest they will. And the busier it gets, the less experienced my drivers tend to be, and less familiar with the city and the best routes to take. And, as a frequent user, I find infuriating Uber's self-absolution of all responsibility for any incident in which using its app harms somebody.

I've found myself turning to an unlikely source to fill in the gaps: the despised, ridiculed, left-for-dead taxi cab.

In the process, I've gained a new appreciation for an old service. It's evident that ridesharing companies' best practices have forever changed the way transportation works, for the better. Nowadays, if I am running late or need to get somewhere on time, I don't even bother with UberX or Lyft any more; I request a taxi using Flywheel, the on-demand app for San Francisco's cab companies.

A veteran San Francisco cab driver once shared his belief with me that Uber's surge pricing was making traffic around the city worse, because it encouraged unfamiliar, out-of-town drivers to come into the city to make money. This type of complaint was at the heart of Uber's recent showdown with Mayor de Blasio in New York City, but San Francisco comparatively has far fewer cabs and covers a smaller geography. I have yet to see documented evidence that this is so, but my anecdotal experiences and conversations with drivers show that it may well be. I've met many drivers from other parts of the state who come into the city for a few hours a day, or on weekends, to make some extra cash. I'm happy that they have a way to make a side income, but I wish Uber would do more to improve the safety, speed, and quality of its contractors. The current approach of deactivating drivers when they fall below a certain ratings threshold isn't enough. In comparison, some of the cab drivers I've met have been doing their jobs for longer than I have been alive for.

I've found that the cabs of today are different from the ones that I'd found so unappealing when I'd first moved to the city. Years of watching Uber decimate the cab market have made drivers stop arguing about such simple things as accepting credit cards. Using an on-demand app, I am able to get the same quality of transparency as Uber offers about who is driving me, when he or she arrives, and what route we take. Complaints can be filed directly from my phone instead of jumping through bureaucratic hoops at a city-run 800 number. Cabs don't engage in surge pricing, although at non-peak times they are a bit more expensive than UberX or Lyft.

I once took two cabs back to back -- one hailed on the street and one hailed through Flywheel -- and the experience couldn't have been more different. One driver was somewhat hostile, the other overly friendly. It seemed obvious that, without some sort of feedback loop, the drivers didn't really care about customer satisfaction. It led me to marvel that a simple piece of information, a rating on a scale of 1 to 5, could create such a difference in expectations. Without ridesharing, it's unlikely that cab companies would bother with measuring quality, let alone with improving it.

To be fair, there are certain aspects of the taxis in the city that remain embarrassingly outdated and backward. Cheap-quality screens playing endless loops of ads are insulting to the eyes and the mind (and quite dangerous in case of sudden stops). And recording passengers for the entire duration of the trip is an inelegant, invasive solution that feels like it's only there to cover the cab company's liability, not to protect my interests.

Ultimately, what Uber and Lyft have set out to do is far more ambitious than what a local cab company could accomplish. UberPool and Lyft Line alone may upend public transit as we know it. Ridesharing is playing an enormously important role in making cities easier and cheaper to get around; it's resulted in a far more functional and inclusive system. But what I've learnt is that there is room for many different players in this space, and that their coexistence makes all of them stronger companies. Bitter corporate rivals fighting for survival makes for a better consumer experience than one company controlling everything.

This article originally appeared on Forbes -- Disruption and Democracy.

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