Trying the crowded book-a-cab app business
The Londoner dilemma to choose between a minicab and a traditional black cab has been agitated big time in the last year with the arrival of book-a-cab mobile apps. Technology is allowing cabbies to enter the pre-booked minicab turf, driving to pick up someone that would otherwise be waiting in the rain to hail an available black cab. Apps pinpoint the passenger's location and let idle drivers know there is a job available next to them. Win-win situation, right?
The idea seems to work. With some heavy advertising in public transport and branded cabs around town, this generation of apps is gaining traction over the all-present private hire AddissonLee. After two rainy weekends hailing black cabs in the traditional way I decided to give the GetTaxi app a spin — I was approached by the company to test the service one year ago but never got to do it.
Get a black cab to pick you up
Although the app's interface hasn't been updated for the latest iOS 7 I was using, what we want to try is how the service works. The main screen merges a square map view with your location on the centre and a list of suggested addresses. The app will automatically use your GPS coordinates, which you can modify easily. Even if the address isn't perfect, getting the street name and postcode saves a lot of typing, only having to change the house number if need be.
Tapping on the 'Get Taxi' icon at the bottom bar will ping your location drivers in the area. The map view zooms out to show cabs driving around in real time with some basic indication of what's happening. It looked like all the cabs where moving outside my location radius although I could see available black cabs at the traffic lights where I was waiting. The first quibble here is the realisation that not every black cab is enrolled to the GetTaxi programme.
Since I wasn't in a rush and really wanted to try the service, I decided to wait for the app to finish doing its thing. It took three attempts for someone to be available and select my job after two 'no cab available' messages. During the wait you can only choose to cancel the search, which triggers a worrying message warning you about not cancelling too often. In fact, you need to wait for the app two or three minutes to say nobody is available, consider your options and try again. For an app that has registered my credit card details and probably keeps records of my journeys, I didn't appreciate the way the potential cancellation was handled.
Some branding confusion
Once someone has chosen your job, GetTaxi moves to the Ride Info screen. The app still shows you a map with your current location and a cab icon in blue quickly moving towards you in real time. A very nice touch is the inclusion of a profile of the driver with a photo, full name and registration number. A green telephone icon gives you the option to call in case you need to give some clarification. The bottom of the map also shows the estimated arrival time in minutes and the approximate distance, which in my case was really fast, making up for the ten minutes spent waiting for someone to notice me.
What I found difficult was to identify my cab. As I was looking at the road with one eye and checking the map on the phone with the other, I got pretty confused. Every black cab driving past could be David but I couldn't possibly know. And if I couldn't, how was he going to find I was the right passenger?
So when the app told me the driver had arrived I decided to walk to the one that just pulled out despite the obvious Hailo branding. So sure I was I told my excited friend "It cannot be this one. See the Hailo sticker? That's the competition." It turned out the Hailo cab was indeed David. We jumped in without pleasantries other than "Is this you?" pointing at my phone and his profile picture.
The ride itself is just like any other, providing your destination and possibly asking for a preferred route. Usual cab rules without a set destination and being billed with meter fare. Unlike the minicab business, which asks you for a destination beforehand, GetTaxi doesn't utilise this option. From a user point of view, it could help non-English speakers to get their point across and the driver to estimate the value of the job before picking someone up.
Arrival and payment
One of the key advantages of using a book-a-cab app is the support for credit and debit cards. This is extremely useful if you don't have cash at the moment and will save the odd stop at the cash machine on your way to your destination. In my test ride I had cash with me, a registered credit card on my GetTaxi account plus complimentary credit a PR person provided when I was originally pitched the app some time ago. The idea was to use the promotional credit on my account and effectively get a free black cab ride. It didn't happen.
As a GetTaxi newbie I didn't know how to pay using my account. I asked the driver how could I pay using the app or whether he could bill me directly on my account. His response in the line of "I have no clue, mate" left me paying with cash and no tip to escape from this awkward situation.
Update I have contacted GetTaxi's support and was told to use the credit card payment option next time. Upon arrival you need to enter the amount on the meter manually and add a tip if you wish to do so. Some types of taxis can deal with this automatically.
This disappointing end to the trip left me thinking about the constrains an average user would face — I have tested competing apps and have been briefed about GetTaxi with some press material but still managed to mess it up. This is a sour result to the GetTaxi testing, being let down paying with my own money for what I hoped to be a complimentary trip, the lack of assistance from the driver and the warnings about cancelling my cab search.
I would like to see more flexibility in the 'order' stage, a way to identify passengers and drivers easily (like a reservation number) and the option to keep log of the trips in the app. Not being a regular black cab user I can still see advantages in the service, especially late at night during weekends. The ability to track who's available in the area and a registered card would be very reassuring for anyone. Business users will like the option to have receipts emailed and to pay discreetly directly from the account without cash involved.
My failed testing doesn't stop me from seeing how apps are changing the way people use black cabs. Almost two years since my first look, the industry is moving but there's a lot of work to do. What I understand any app is doing is getting me the same black cab without any significant killer advantage. A stronger branding effort and education of both customer and driver should allow the best cab apps to work together and convince book-a-cab apps are more convenient that other transportation methods in London.