Here in the ride-hail revolution's home country, one of the most popular taxi apps is Curb, designed to let users hail licensed cabs and Access-A-Rides, book flat-rate or per-mile rides in advance, and pay for ongoing taxi rides.
Focused on major metropolitan areas for now, Curb has participating fleets in 65 US cities so far, accessible by Android and iOS, and plans to expand. It's operated by Curb Mobility, which provides payment and backseat entertainment services (previously as Way2Ride) to fleets in New York City and nationwide.
By phone, Curb's vice president of mobile Jason Gross said that the ability to hail, pre-book, and pay for rides through an app is something drivers and riders have requested for years.
For most individual fleets or cities, however, it's been a huge struggle to launch and promote apps that can compete with transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft, whose explicit focus and expertise is technology, not human transport.
"The taxi industry began as a 'Wild West' a century ago, and we're seeing [riders and drivers] go through exactly the same problems again," Gross said. "Ironically, the fastest way to get a vehicle is many cases is still to walk outside."
While taxi dispatches and app orders account for some of professional drivers' fares, Gross explained, the bulk come from being at the right place at the right time.
The result is that drivers — whether in radio-linked yellow cabs, or algorithm-and-GPS-led private vehicles — will inevitably try to position themselves where they believe the best fares are likely to be: places like airports, southern Manhattan, and other bustling zones.
Another result, Gross said, is that the important issue of denial of service to different communities is often conflated with drivers' efforts to position themselves for trip requests. "If there's a belief that there are more trips with higher fares in Manhattan, drivers will congregate in Manhattan," he said.
"It’s a little disingenuous to say that the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) was not addressing underserved areas. And the idea that we're at over 100,000 professional drivers since the [TNC boom], and don't have enough vehicles to serve five boroughs? That's not true either."
Getting drivers to where they're needed (and avoiding pile-ups where they're not) is a tricky issue to solve, particularly without a system-wide strategy and preferably real-time data on demand. For their part, TNCs have left the decision of where to cruise around up to the individual drivers.
New York's TLC, meanwhile, attempted to improve service outside of Manhattan several years ago with the introduction of 'boro cabs,' or green cabs, which are licensed to pick up street hails in those areas where yellow cabs are seldom seen, and black cars have traditionally filled in.
The TLC stopped issuing green cab medallions this year due to ongoing competition from TNCs, but thousands of those vehicles are still on the road, and ready to hail or book via Curb. "People wanted those licenses, to do that work," Gross said.
Gross said that mounting financial pressures and street traffic have highlighted how much NYC's yellow and green cab drivers, black car drivers, and even TNC drivers have in common, from everyday struggles to high personal stakes. "Going back several years, taxis and black car companies saw themselves in a fight to the death, but since the advent of ride-hails, we're seeing a lot more cooperation."
For example, today's NYC's taxi and livery or 'black car' drivers both rely on fares from the publicly subsidized Access-A-Ride program in order to get by after years of competing with TNCs like Uber, which subsidize their sub-market-rate rides with billions of dollars from investors.
According to Gross, Curb plans to extend its network to include more livery fleets next year, while NYC pilot programs have sought to bring Uber and Lyft drivers into this accessibility network for New Yorkers. Just this week, Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams hailed the pilot program as a way of helping close the transportation gap for NYC students with physical disabilities.
"It's the first time we've been part of the paratransit program, which our API helps coordinate. We take a lot of pride in of the work we're doing, connecting the disabled community and knowledgeable drivers with clearly marked and often pre-equipped cars, who won't be forced [into legal] arbitration if there's a medical issue."
"The program provides hundreds of thousands of trips each month, and we take in their overflow, which is thousands of rides a month," Gross said. "Numerous drivers have told me, 'I would have turned in my license if not for the work provided through Access-A-Ride.'"
For riders accustomed to Uber and Lyft, Curb's pricing system might come as a bit of a surprise: not including Curb's $2 booking fee, the price of a ride may well be higher than TNCs' estimates during their slow times, or well lower than TNCs during "surge pricing."
According to a recent report on taxi and ride-hail services in the Raleigh, NC area, for example, taxi cabs average a flat $46.70 for trips from the city's downtown to Raleigh-Durham International Airport; at 11 p.m. on a weekday, Uber and Lyft might provide the trip for a little more than $20, but on a Saturday night, it would cost between $50 and $60 (not including tip).
Prices for vehicles booked through Curb will most likely be higher than Uber's more often than not, however. That's because taxi rates have been calculated and set to cover the costs of labor, insurance, local fees, safety measures, and even oversight for fleets.
Uber and Lyft's prices, on the other hand, have generally stayed comfortably below what it actually costs for an adult person to pick up and drive another person from Point A to Point B, all things considered — seemingly a key part of their plan to put robots behind the wheel.
"We're not a VC-backed company, so we're trying to focus where we can make a difference," Gross said. "That means providing an experience with all the benefits of participating in the regulated industry, but with the level of service and quality that customers demand."
"Regulation is not a bad thing. It can be subject to overreach, but it should be allowed to exist, and to be creative in the ways it solves problems," he continued.
"At the end of the day, we're all stakeholders in the community. New York is also really serving as a model for cities around the country for the right level at which to regulate, and how to solve problems."
Going forward, Gross said, "We need to be finding out how to utilize the resources we have, and decide to become more efficient in how we provide transportation."
He added, "I think we can do better."
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