A novel transportation service worked well for me on a recent trip to Washington, but Wichita doesn’t seem ready to embrace such innovation.
Have you heard of Uber and similar services? Uber says it is “… evolving the way the world moves. By seamlessly connecting riders to drivers through our [smartphone] apps, we make cities more accessible, opening up more possibilities for riders and more business for drivers. From our founding in 2009 to our launches in over 70 cities today, Uber’s rapidly expanding global presence continues to bring people and their cities closer.”
Uber works like this: Riders use their smartphones and the Uber app to request a ride. Drivers — who have undergone an application process and background check — acknowledge the request and pick up the rider. When the dropoff is made, payment is handled through the Uber app.
My first trip using Uber was from Dulles International Airport to my hotel in downtown Washington, a pretty long trip at nearly 27 miles. My Uber fare was $59.50. While that is expensive, my hotel’s website listed cab fare as $60. A private sedan would be $90, with reservations required.
So it seems like Uber is priced about the same as a regular taxicab. But: There’s a big difference. The Uber fare is all-inclusive. The way I elected to pay with Uber — which I suspect is probably the easiest way — was to store my credit card with the Uber system. As we approached my destination, I asked my driver if I could add a tip through the Uber app. He said no, there’s no need to. As he transferred my luggage to the bellman, it seemed awkward to not offer a tip. But I confirmed with DC natives that’s the way it is with Uber: No tipping.
No tipping! That’s refreshing. I’m tired of cab drivers extorting tips. But you may be asking: What motivates Uber drivers to offer good service? One factor is that customers rate their drivers through the smartphone app. An intriguing factor is that Uber drivers rate their passengers. Also, a customer service representative followed up regarding my trip. Another thing: My drivers seemed to like their job. They took pride in their clean cars and amenities.
And what service it was. There are several levels of Uber service. I used UberX, which is the least expensive. Other Uber services available in some cities include luxury cars or SUVs. The three cars I rode in were a Toyota Prius, a Lexus, and a Volvo. All were impeccably clean — both the cars and the polite drivers. On all three rides I was offered a bottle of water. Two cars had magazines for me to read. One had a bowl of wrapped candy on the seat next to me. Drivers asked if I was comfortable with the setting of the air conditioning. They were not blasting their radios, as has been the case with some of my cab trips.
In short, the service was great. While the Uber fare was the same as what my hotel estimated for a taxi fare, there was an important difference — no tip to the Uber driver. No need for cash, no need for a taxi driver to fumble with an awkward method of accepting credit cards.
And … a neat receipt available on the Uber website or in my email. When I’ve asked a cab driver for a receipt, I’ve received a blank form.
And … I had an estimate of the fare before I requested a driver. In my case, the estimate was $60.00, with the actual fare at $59.50. Remember, no tipping.
Uber in Wichita?
Recently Uber and Lyft (a similar service) started operations in Kansas City, Missouri. Nearly immediately the city council passed additional regulations that make it tougher — or impossible — for these services to operate.
In Wichita, it’s certain that Uber would be in violation of city ordinances. In 2012 the city passed new taxi regulations which erect and enforce substantial barriers to entering the taxicab market. Some of the most restrictive include these: Drivers must work for a company that has a central office staffed at least 40 hours per week; a taxicab company must have a dispatch system operating 24 hours per day, seven days per week; it must have enough cabs to operate city-wide service, which the city has determined is ten cabs; and a supervisor must be on duty at all times cabs are operating.
A dispatch system. That’s 1950s technology. Uber and similar services use smartphones. No dispatcher needed. No central office required. When you request a ride with the Uber app, you see a screen showing the available drivers nearby, along with an estimate of when the driver will arrive. You can watch the driver’s progress towards your pickup location. Can you do that with Wichita’s cab companies with their supervisors and dispatch systems?
Wichita has implemented regulations regarding the hygiene and local knowledge of taxi drivers, enforced by bureaucrats. How is Uber regulated? First, there are the customer ratings, a powerful force. Then, provided with Uber receipts is a map of the route the driver took to deliver riders to their destinations. If riders are concerned that drivers are padding fares by taking roundabout routes, that’s easy to see and resolve, and the Uber dashboard lets riders request a fare review. Can you imagine how difficult that would be in Wichita, to prove that your driver padded your fare or extorted a tip?
Regulation by bureaucrats, or regulation by customers. There’s a difference, and Wichita is served by the least effective, thanks to our city council.
To top it off, while Wichita has regulations regarding the personal hygiene of drivers and the cleanliness of their vehicles, the city fell short in protecting drives from something really important, like violent crime. After the city passed the new regulations, a passenger was raped by a driver. The Wichita Eagle reported “[the driver] shouldn’t have received a taxi license but did because the new change banning registered sex offenders wasn’t communicated to staff members doing background checks on taxi driver applicants, city officials told The Eagle on Friday. The city has fixed the problem that led to the oversight in Spohn’s case, they said.” (See Regulation failure leads to tragedy in Wichita.)
The regulations regarding customer service training were implemented. But the really important regulations? Lack of oversight, says the city. Which leads us to wonder: Who is regulating the regulators? If an Uber driver committed such a crime, the company would undoubtedly be held liable and experience a loss of reputation. But how do we hold city bureaucrats accountable for their regulatory failures?
Will Wichita consider relaxing taxicab regulations so that Wichitans might be served by a superior service like Uber? Not likely, I would say. The city council is proud of the new and restrictive regulations. The city is served by three taxi companies, two having the same owner. These companies are likely to lobby aggressively against allowing Uber and similar services in Wichita, just as taxi companies have done in other cities.
Recent discussion about the future of transit in Wichita have not included services like Uber. At last week’s city council meeting Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) spoke about baby boomers who may soon be aging and either can’t drive, or don’t want to drive. Yet, she said, they have disposable income and want to spend it. These are ideal customers for Uber.
Uber and the like might not be a total replacement for traditional city bus transit. But it could help many people, and it could provided needed competition to the city’s taxicab fleet. But it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll see Uber in Wichita soon, if at all.