Uber Seattle Brings Town Cars to a Taxi-Starved Populace
It’s official–after a soft launch in late July, the Uber town car service is now here in Seattle. Uber contacted us about being test monkeys, even provided us with Uber credits for trial runs, and we’re here to tell you that town cars are the new…um…black, especially in a town with too few taxis.
Here’s how it works: You sign up for Uber in advance, providing billing information then. Then you download the Uber app (iPhone, Android) to your phone, or be prepared to text Uber your pickup location.
With the app, your phone determines your location for you and “hails” the closest Uber. (You can also drag your pickup point to wherever you want.) You’re told how far in minutes the closest car is, and you can even watch its progress toward you, real-time, on a map (Uber’s drivers are all given iPhones and a special Uber-driver app). You hop in, arrive at your destination, and hop out. The bill is processed, including tip, automatically.
As GeekWire reports, “Uber is contracting with about 40 private drivers in the Seattle area,” which so far has meant that we haven’t waited more than five minutes for a driver to arrive, even in the aftermath of the Torchlight Parade. Cook continues: “Uber charges a $7 base and $3.75 per mile or a 75 cent per minute time fee based on how fast the car is moving. A special rate between downtown Seattle and Sea-Tac airport is set at $50.”
Contrast that with Seattle taxi rates: $2.50 drop plus $2.50 per mile plus a gasoline surcharge. The typical rate from downtown to the airport? $40.
According to Sightline, the cost of a cost of a typical, five-mile trip by cab is $17.25 in Seattle. It’s not a bad gig: “Seattle medallions currently trade for $100,000, when they’re for sale at all. When the city offered 15 new licenses for wheelchair accessible taxis in 2009, 723 drivers applied.”
So the cost for an on-call town car is not out of reach. And it’s much more convenient than trying to snag a cab (which, by the way, only feels illegal). The Taxi Magic app lets you book a taxi in advance, but so far only Orange Cab is participating. The 30-minute waits for cabs in Seattle, if you can get through to dispatch at all during peak times, are a function of the cap on the number of cabs allowed here, so that’s not going to improve on its own. I’m betting Uber’s fast response times will make a difference for customers.
It’s true that town car drivers are not veteran taxi drivers. On my first Uber excursion, the driver missed me on the corner and took off down the street. I saw him heading away on my app, so I called him back (his number is a button on the iPhone app). Then his GPS led him to try to drop me about five blocks from my destination, so I had steer him from there.
On the other hand, I’ve had exactly the same experience with taxis. The trip from Whole Foods to the top of Capitol Hill was $14 with tip. (You can’t opt out of the tip, but you do rate the driver afterwards, and Uber is serious about fixing problems.)
On my second trip, Uber was a complete Hail Mary. I’d just missed two buses–watched the second pull away from me at Broadway and John–heading downtown, and I need to get to ACT Theatre in 10 minutes for the start of a play. I fired up the app, and found an Uber car zero minutes away (in real life, about two minutes). He dropped us outside of ACT at 8:01 p.m., and we weren’t even the last people seated. Again, because billing is automatic, we saved some time. Cost? $12 with tip.
Initially, I had thought Uber’s town car experience might be limited to trips to the Opera or Sea-Tac, or rainy night backup to cabs. But given how easy, fast, and reasonable it is to hail an Uber, I’ve come around on that. If you’re car-less and out and about–in a town where buses stop running around midnight–you might find Uber’s black town cars are as essential as a little black dress.