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Consumer NZ team pits Uber against taxis

Uber is the new kid in taxi-town but how well does it compare to the establishment it wants to shake up?

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A new transport option launched in Wellington last Wednesday. Uber connects riders and drivers through a smartphone app and claims to be up to 20 percent cheaper than a taxi. We thought we’d see if Uber lives up to this claim.

In our Amazing Uber Race, we took a return journey between our office and Wellington Airport using four competitors. At 10.03 on Wednesday morning, Green Cabs and Wellington Combined Taxis were called, the Uber app was fired up, and one unlucky trialist ran out into the rain to catch the Airport Flyer bus. Which option came out the winner?

Pickup:
1st - Taxi, 2nd – Uber, 3rd - Bus

The two taxis and the Uber car arrived five minutes after they were ordered. There aren’t too many Uber drivers in Wellington right now – only 3 or 4 appeared on the live map – so the service may be a bit patchy, particularly outside the CBD. The bus rider caught a connecting bus and then had to wait for the Airport Flyer, which added almost 20 minutes to their journey. On the return leg, the taxi rank and bus stop were right outside the arrivals door so there were cabs and a bus waiting. The Uber car was ordered and the driver called to arrange the pickup location. It was fun watching him on the app, which tracks the cars with GPS, and he arrived in a few minutes right outside the arrivals door.

Travel time:
1st equal - Taxi and Uber, 3rd - Bus

Our Uber and taxi journeys to and from the airport took between 19 and 22 minutes, with all drivers taking the same route around the waterfront and through the Mount Victoria tunnel. The Airport Flyer bus took about 35 minutes from the bus station, travelling through the city centre and Mount Victoria bus tunnel, making a few stops along the way.

Cost:
1st - Bus. 2nd - Uber, 3rd - Taxi

Not surprisingly, the bus was by far the cheapest at $22 for the round trip, including the connecting bus. Uber was next best. The app gave a fare quote before the car was ordered and the final amount was true to the quote: $55 in total ($27 to the airport and $28 return). Taxi was the most expensive option, even in light mid-morning traffic. Green Cabs cost $80 ($36.80 to the airport and $43.20 return) and Wellington Combined was $83.50 ($37.10 to the airport and $46.40 return). Taxi fares were charged using the meter and included any airport and EFTPOS fees. Payment for Uber wasn’t made to the driver – the fare was charged automatically after the ride through the app, which needs to store your credit card details.

Journey experience:
1st equal - Taxi and Uber, 3rd - Bus

Our Uber drivers both fitted their Uber work around other driving - transporting embassy staff or taking tourists on city tours. The experience was friendly and professional. The taxi drivers were a mixed bag, but professional – some were friendly and talkative, others silent. The bus was comfortable and had free Wi-Fi available, but didn’t have a door-to-door service and had the inconvenience of bus transfers.

Overall. The winner is .... Uber. In this unscientific trial, Uber provided a service at least as good as the taxis and saved us $25 on a round trip to the airport – that was at least 30 percent cheaper than the taxis.

It will be interesting to see how the Uber service develops in New Zealand (it is currently available in Wellington and parts of Auckland). The NZ Taxi Federation doesn’t like them and questions their safety. Uber drivers in New Zealand are vetted and have to be licensed to carry fare-paying passengers – but they don’t need to adhere to usual taxi regulations (such as in-car cameras) or be registered with the Approved Taxi Organisation.

Uber have been around for five years and are now in more than 100 cities around the world. Their disruptive approach has gained plenty of love/hate responses. Some cities (such as Vancouver, Miami and Brussels) have used local regulations to exclude them. Searching the internet turns up stories of disgruntled drivers upset at centrally discounted prices hurting their income, articles about Uber distancing themselves if things go sour between driver and passenger, and passengers caught out by ‘demand pricing’. But the search also finds plenty of recommendations from happy drivers and passengers.

After the good experiences in this short trial, the Uber app will stay on my smartphone and I’ll keep using their service. I think a little disruptive competition for taxi companies will be a very good thing – it has potential to improve the service and drive down prices. It might also reduce the number of taxis clogging up our city streets, which I think would be a very good thing too.

By Paul Smith

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