Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Uber now offers Washington, D.C. taxi service in style

December 15, 2011 - 12:21 PM
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The District's newest taxi. (Photo: Uber)

Are you fed up with the District's traditional taxi services? For those frustrated with all the talking of rising cab fares, consider a new transportation service that's recently come to Washington, D.C. — Uber.

Uber advertises itself as "everyone's private driver" and offers a similar experience as a taxi but one without the marked car and with, allegedly, more style and convenience and notably more tech-savvy capability. You can request a car via a text message or through the company's smartphone app, and before you know it, a black car appears. What's most appealing may be their spiel on payment: the ride's cost is "automatically charged to your credit card on file, tip included." The company launched in 2009, has several millions in impressive funding, and offers services in San Francisco, New York, Seattle, Chicago, Paris, Boston, and now D.C. as well.

And what is that cost exactly? In D.C., the Uber fare is $7 base plus a $3.25-per-mile distance fee plus a 75-cent-per-minute time fee. It's $15 minimum and Uber does offer special rates to airports like Dulles and BWI ($80 and $115, respectively). Uber began testing in the D.C. market on November 18, and according to its blog, its first testers were especially thrilled. One wrote:

The problem in DC is that cab services are unreliable. Drivers often don’t know where they’re going and don’t know the city. If you order a cab you have no idea how close they are and they will more often than not pick up a fare halfway to picking you up and you will never receive an alert about it, leaving you waiting and frustrated. Uber is fantastic because it’s reliable, comfortable, the drivers are professional, courteous, funny, and friendly, and I always know how far away my ride is.

Naturally this comes from a PR-focused blog and comes from a person dealing with Uber's test drivers, so take the endorsement with a heavy grain of salt.

Its arrival in D.C. has already attracted attention. Roll Call reports more than 2,000 people have signed up for Uber in the D.C. metro area and the the company already has more than 60 drivers on hand here. Uber also has a D.C.-specific Twitter account, @Uber_DC, which the company has held for awhile and which touts more than 600 followers already. Mike Schaeffer, D.C. resident and social media director for iostudio (and the National Guard), bashed taxis ("unpleasant, sticky") and praised Uber in a recent blog post. He dismissed the higher cost. "There are clear benefits in Uber," he writes. "It’s definitely an upscale image for a midscale price. You can order easily. There is virtually no waiting outside in the cold, hot, rain, snow."

"I am stoked you guys are in DC now," Anya Kendell Augustine writes on Uber's Facebook page. But her enthusiasm has limits: "Having issues signing up on the website though. I have input my info twice and still doesn't recognize me :(."

TechCrunch also noticed Uber's appearance in D.C. and says it's poised with distinct advantages over our cabs: "[D.C.] cabs charge you extra for each additional stop, for example. The district is also stuck between two states and numerous counties, and many cab companies only serve some of them. If you’re downtown in the afternoon, you might have trouble getting a cab out to your home in the suburbs. Uber can ignore those constraints."

I have mixed feelings about the arrival of the company. Yes, it's sleek and I believe any company that utilizes technology smartly — in terms of the Internet, mobile tech, and especially payment — has a strong edge in a market where those dimensions lag, as they do in D.C.'s current taxi services. But let's return to the $15 minimum price tag per ride. Uber offers essentially a luxury service for people who have cash to spare. This will serve the political and corporate types of D.C. well, and I understand the enthusiasm. But I don't imagine that the sedans and SUVs of Uber will inspire any sort of transportation revolution for the average D.C. commuter.

Yet I see one way Uber may fire up the District's transportation. With its new smart tech, might taxis have more incentive to accept credit cards and add other features to keep their wealthier share of passengers? Just maybe.

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