Uber and satnavs – are we killing quality for better value?

I’m not a big taxi taker, but a few recent rides have made me worry we’re sacrificing a decent service just to save some pennies.

Last week I took a minicab from my work to Channel 5’s studios for an interview on the news. The driver was hopelessly lost, first confused by the difference between Holborn Circus and Holborn station, then by street food markets, heavy traffic and roadworks. The reason – he’d relied on his satnav and didn’t have any idea what to do when the route didn’t work.

A few weeks ago, an Uber we took (using a voucher code naturally) after a night out got stuck in traffic when a huge stretch of our journey was along a heavily dug-up, traffic light ridden, series of roads. Again, the driver stuck to his satnav route, adding time (and money) to our journey.

Both these experiences made me appreciate  how a black cab driver would (probably) be able to make a left here, a right there and find a quicker route to our destination. The idea of the “Knowledge” blows my mind.

Yes, London is a big city so it’s never going to be easy for a driver to know it all, but I’d expect major road works and basic destinations to be known. On these experiences, it would seem paying less for a minicab or Uber means you could lose out – the extra cost of getting stuck in traffic could easily make the money you save negligible.

Anti-Uber anger

Black cab and minicab drivers are obviously very angry about Uber, particularly struggling to compete with the prices (unless there’s a surge!). Apparently one of the biggest problems is actually the loss of the tourist trade, so used to Uber back home they instantly use it again in the UK – even from airports.

One Uber driver I spoke to said he’d faced some quite violent behaviour from cabbies. I once had a cabbie aggressively tweet me a few times because I’d described Ubers as taxis. You can understand their anger (to an extent – I’d never support bullying) as the cabbies livelihood is threatened.

A better level of service?

However, the appeal of Uber isn’t just the price. Service is normally pretty good, drivers friendly. The cars are usually cleaner and newer. Often you’ll get picked up in a hybrid Prius, which is good for the environment. It’s really convenient to be able to quickly get an estimate of your fare and track your journey as you go. You certainly feel safer knowing you can see the drivers face and check their rating.

There’s a great episode of South Park where Timmy sets up an Uber style company that’s not just cheaper but the drivers are friendlier and service fantastic. The taxi drivers revolt, resorting to dirty tricks to try stop Timmy. But the obvious answer that they ignore is to just be nicer, to just clean their cars.

I think if anything, Uber has probably forced minicabs to up their game. If they don’t, people won’t use them. Another Uber driver I spoke to said many drivers also work for minicab firms, which means in those cases the level automatically rises to Uber’s standards and customer expectations.

Of course quality could go the other way – the same Uber driver told me there are no checks. Anyone can drive an Uber!

Can cabbies compete?

It’s a different story for licensed taxi drivers. There are plenty of apps (including Uber) where you can order a proper cab, so it’s more a marketing challenge there.

Price really is the main reason I’ll take an Uber over a proper cab (though I’m more likely to get the tube or walk). I’m not sure how they can compete in this area, and that could lead to less licensed cabbies.

So the danger is we could lose an expert service, or at the very least see the standards and knowledge you expect from a licensed taxi driver to lower to cut costs. Which might mean more satnav drivers, more wrong routes, and more journeys that take longer than they should.

I love progress and technology making our life easier (I’m writing this on my phone while on the tube!) and cheaper, but I think it’s important we remember the reasons the old ways sometimes cost a little more.

It goes back to the saying “You get what you pay for”.  Sometimes all you need is an Uber, but it’s good to have other options. Let’s hope the black cabs don’t die out.

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