Diversions, service upgrades and weekend closures are part of the vocabulary of every Londoner using public transport. For the regular commuter, travel apps have radically changed the way we navigate the city, telling us about train delays, road blocks and service updates to keep us on the move. You even get loads for the Boris bikes!
When it comes to the picturesque London black cabs we don't really need all that gadgetry: just wait and hail the next free cab. But let's face it, there are occasions when you can't just wait and need to get from point A to B immediately.
Staying for one last drink at the pub? Dinner at your mate’s place in Wembley an realise that the Tube has already shut? My normal reaction would be to check the night buses. If that doesn't work, I'll call Adisson Lee minicabs. After waiting 10 minutes on the phone waiting for a human to answer, it means that I'm stuck there.
Fortunately, there’s a new generation of apps that allow us busy Londoners to make this process much smoother. If that means that I won't have to fight for a cab with other three people waiting, it must be worth trying.
First up is the new Hailo app [iTunes Link]. Launched last week with a fancy black cab convoy around the city, it promises to make the experience more efficient and satisfying for the driver and the passenger. After a very quick registration - using your mobile number and a confirmation code via SMS - simply launch the app and ask for a cab. I can see how the app has advantages over booking over the phone straight away.
The location services on your iPhone are used to get the closest address - no need to ask or remember post codes again. Hailo will give you a time estimate before you book, knowing exactly how long would it take your cab to arrive. Also, you can drag your position in the map to select a different pick up location and choose the house number of your address.
The app also handles your credit card details, which is extremely helpful to avoid the “stop at the cashpoint” issue especially if you find long queues or it's late at night. I can see this being useful for corporate users or the Brit gentleman, since you can request a can and pay for it without the passenger really knowing until the driver tells them.
Functionality aside, the look and feel of the app is worth mentioning. On the usability side, Hailo is extremely simplistic and requires few taps to request a cab. The UI details also show that they didn't hire the cheapest designer in town and for me at least, that's important if I'm ever going to send my credit card details on a mobile application.
On a background note, the idea to create a cab-on-demand app came from three London drivers to compete with minicabs. The venture is funded by the same people that backed Spotify and they count with some very talented devs.
Black Cabs [iTunes Link] works on a similar idea helping you to find the nearest available licensed cab and make a booking. The main difference is that it requests you to enter your destination beforehand, which takes longer, and doesn't display the current available cabs unless you make an order.
Before you start, The app asks you to enter your mobile number and enter a code for verification - this can later used to call your driver. Simply select your address from a list using your iPhone’s GPS location and add a destination. It's nice to see train stations and airports as a standard option that can save me a lot of time typing. The app will start “finding your nearest taxi” alerting the drivers available in the area.
As soon as the driver accepts the job, you’ll get the current location and be able to confirm the order. A very simple map will indicate the current driver position approaching your location so no time estimates are given.
I’d like to see an app more customer-focused, since the first prompt at launch asks wether you are a passenger or a driver. The fact that Black Cabs requires so much input and the text size is so small doesn't make the experience any better. Those usability decisions are questionable, just like the interface itself, which is very far from being pixel-perfect. I like the confirmation that a driver got your order and is on the way though, allowing you to call if you need to.
Kabbee [iTunes Link] is a price comparison app that helps you to book and pay for the cheapest minicab service in your area. I've seen this app advertised in Tube stations quite aggressively and also decided to have a look. The premise is very attractive if you’ve are a regular Private Hire user who calls different companies to get the best deal.
To place a booking order, simply add the desired time and - oddly - the passenger name. An automated list will retrieve the closest addresses found, but in my test I had to enter mine manually as the app suggested locations on a 10-mile radius. In order to get a quote, you have to include a destination, allowing you to include “waypoints” if you want to.
Unfortunately, during my test, the app failed to spot three of the independent companies I usually work with in my neighbourhood, giving an odd selection with price differences of £10 for a ride under 20 minutes. I use Addison Lee quite regularly and like many other Londoners, it's my preferred minicab service. For a price comparison app, I would have expected to include a quote from them and see if I save any money and time with the alternatives given.
The app itself is rather clunky, with a poor location database and the very odd fact that you cannot return to your search once you have selected a quote. You can choose to pay cash, with credit card or with pre-pay account, but it isn't very clear what’s the commission or hidden charges using Kabbee.
A challenging future ahead
There are many other apps for both black cabs and private hire services available on the App Store but I think these three are the most refined ones. I understand that a big part of their success will be if the drivers decide to accept them and see a win-win situation where the fee to run the service is worth it.
As I already mentioned, I tend to use minicabs from Addison Lee as my first option. I rarely get a black cab, and if I do so is because I don't have any other alternative. Perhaps having a reminder on my phone in the form of an app will encourage me to check back cab availability instead of calling for a minicab first.