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Hail the revolution

One of my favorite Uber drivers was Bernhard in Miami, a part-time actor. “I do the voiceover for the McDonald’s ads in the South American market,” he told me, launching into sped-up Spanish before singing the jingle at the end.

In Munich, Gerald supplied me with free mineral water and WiFi. And then there was Bradley in New York, who, within minutes of me getting into his Toyota Camry, started telling me about the book he was working on: Disclaim and Disclose, an account of his high-profile fall from grace as a commodities trader.

First launched in San Francisco in 2010, on-demand taxi app Uber now operates in more than 400 cities globally. I have been using it since the London launch in 2012. I remember it feeling extravagant, with drivers often providing chocolate, gum, iPads and phone chargers, and yet it was cheaper than regular black taxis.

It was no surprise, then, when the UK’s Department for Transport announced last year that the number of private hire vehicles on the capital’s roads had risen by more than a quarter since 2013 – from 49,854 to 62,754. The number of black cabs, meanwhile, has remained steady, at around 22,000 since 2005.

Uber expects the number of London drivers it works with to surge from 15,000 in 2015 to 42,000 by the end of the year. Worldwide, there are more than five million Uber trips per day.

Its rapid rise has been controversial, though, with competing taxi drivers up in arms. There have been violent demonstrations in Paris and Jakarta, marches in Rome and Sao Paulo, protests in Melbourne and Brussels, and strikes in London that saw Hackney Carriages clog the roads in a river of black.

Despite numerous ongoing court cases from drivers, taxi companies and governments in which existing legislation has been challenged (as a “logistical intermediary” the firm doesn’t own cars, and drivers are contractors rather than employees), the company was most recently valued at $62.5 billion. It’s no wonder, then, that other companies have been following its lead – in China, Uber rival Didi Kuaidi just raised $1 billion in funding, based on a $20 billion valuation.

Even the drivers of conventional taxis have been banding together to release apps. Hailo was founded by three London cabbies and three Internet entrepreneurs in 2011. UK general manager Andy Jones says: “We challenge any other application to match the quantity and quality of supply we have available in London, with over 16,500 registered cabs in our fleet.”

Does this mean the end of flagging taxis on the street? Jones says: “The typical wait time for a Hailo cab is just three minutes in London, and that gives you certainty that a taxi is coming and knows where to find you, even if you don’t know where you are. But seeing the yellow light on in the street is part of the city’s landscape. Our technology is rapidly evolving but we think customers will continue to want both options.”

How It Works

Most of us have entered the age of the “e-hail” but if you still haven’t tried it, here’s how it works. After downloading an app and inputting your card details, you use geolocation to pinpoint where you are and find out the estimated wait time. Once your car is booked, you will see a photo of your driver, their name, ranking and license plate number – you also have the option of messaging or calling them. When your journey is complete, you leave a rating.

In general, transactions are cashless (in some countries, such as India, you can pay in cash, as the foreign transaction fee can be more than the fare). You will then be e-mailed a receipt with a map showing the way you went. If you have any problems – maybe your driver didn’t turn up or took an overly long route – you can lodge a complaint with Uber (and others) and the company will quickly respond with a refund or discount on your next ride.

Safety remains a hot topic. Uber conducts background checks on its drivers, and rides are insured. Remo Gerber, taxi app Gett’s chief executive for the UK and Western Europe, says: “We have a lot of corporate clients and what matters to them is that their duty of care continues when their employees are using our services. This is why we are working only with licensed taxi drivers that are properly vetted and trained by the councils.”

In reality, whatever kind of taxi you get into there is a small risk that you will be exposed to unsavory people – but this kind of technology provides added layers of security and built-in abilities for recourse.

With Uber, you can send someone your journey status so they can see your route, ETA and driver; the drivers’ contact details are stored in your account; and you don’t have to hang around on the street to find a taxi – you can order it from your office or restaurant. In India, there is also an SOS button that sends a message to the police.

At the same time, the tech is helping to keep drivers safe, too. In East London, Ali told me that when he was working as a minicab driver, he was held hostage at knifepoint, beaten and robbed. He said he felt safer with Uber because he knew who he was picking up and if anything happened he could go to the authorities with their details. Not carrying cash also eliminated the incentive for people to steal from him.

Good for Business

For corporate travelers, apps such as Uber, Gett, Hailo and Addison Lee offer the added benefit of being able to create accounts linked to a corporate credit card, and filing expenses is made easier thanks to virtual billing.

“The Hailo app is used by over 90 percent of FTSE 100 companies,” Jones says. “Those with a Hailo for Business account also benefit from features such as online booking, expense and travel policy management. Information such as flight numbers can be added, making it easier for passengers and drivers to manage the complications and delays that are often linked to air travel. You can also collect Avios with every qualifying journey through partnerships with British Airways Executive Club and Iberia Plus.”

Some are differentiating themselves from Uber’s on-demand model by providing the ability to forward-plan, or by adding extra services. Justin Peters, chief executive of Kabbee, says: “Unlike Uber, advance booking allows business travelers to book a journey up to three months ahead and a fixed fare guarantees the price, even in London traffic.”

Gett’s Gerber adds: “We have just launched a courier service through the app – and if you are in the right zone in London we will deliver you an ice-cold bottle of Veuve Clicquot and two glasses in ten minutes for £39.” I’ll drink to that.

Apps to Try


Uber’s extensive global network now covers everywhere from London and New York to Lima and New Delhi. Fares with UberX are 40 percent cheaper than a normal taxi, although beware of “surge” pricing that sees them go up during peak times. You can request more expensive UberXL (SUVs), Exec and Lux vehicles, as well as London black cabs (a recent addition). Business travelers can create an account attached to their corporate credit card (company policies can also be integrated). Receipts with journey maps, driver details, times and prices are e-mailed to all customers.


Gett operates in 57 cities in the US, the UK, Israel and Russia. It differs from Uber in that it only books licensed cabs (black taxis in London), which you can request in advance. Gett for Business has more than 4,000 clients. Fares are metered, with fixed prices available on pre-booked journeys over 10km.


Founded five years ago by three London black taxi drivers, Hailo can now be used in more than 20 cities, including Madrid, Singapore and Tokyo. It links 800,000 registered users with more than 16,600 drivers in London. Hailo for Business syncs with corporate cards and offers real-time accounting and pre-booking hours or days ahead. In July, Hailo announced it is selling a majority stake to Daimler and was merging with rival MyTaxi, another on-demand ride-sharing company that was acquired by Daimler subsidiary Moovel in 2014. Hailo gets rebranded as MyTaxi, and the combination forms one of Europe’s biggest car-hailing services, the better to compete with Uber’s expanding presence there.


This app provides access to 10,000 drivers from more than 70 London minicab companies, with average prices up to 65 percent cheaper than black taxis. You can book rides from within five minutes to three months out, and pay by account, card or cash. Airport transfers have fixed rates. Kabbee says it will soon offer rides in the capital’s Hackney carriages, and will be rolling out across other cities in the UK. Kabbee Treats is the reward scheme that offers points on rides that can be used for upgrades, as well as free food, drink and hotel stays with partner companies.


In operation since 1975, this private hire company has moved with the times by launching an app for real-time pick-ups. Addison Lee’s 4,800 central London cars all come with free WiFi and phone chargers, and are available in four types including eco-friendly hybrids and Mercedes E Class. There is no surge pricing. Airport trips can be booked in advance with the “pick me up later” function. You can also pay with cash and set up a business account. Loyal users can sign up to ClubLee for points and rewards.


Put travel management in the driving seat. Cabfind offers a seamless end-to-end experience in journey bookings, providing a taxi anywhere in the UK while streamlining travel expense management. Designed for business people, taxi management company Cabfind connects users with a network of 120,000 drivers across the UK. It is best suited for those with a corporate account, but there is also a “book now” option if you want to input your credit card details. You can pre-program regular journeys, add “via” addresses for any route and choose your preferred vehicle.


This US-based “ridesharing” company provides a slightly different model, whereby you can request a lift from people in their own cars. (Extensive background checks are made to ensure safety.) Available in dozens of locations – from Chicago to Las Vegas – drivers can make up to $35 an hour, while passengers pay less than the alternatives. Prime Time surge pricing applies. Lyft for Work partners with Concur on expensing.


Launched in 2012, this Brazilian company has cornered the Latin America market, with 20 million users and 420 global cities covered (from Rio to Bangkok, but none in Europe). It offers similar features and functions to Uber. Easy Taxi Corporate is used by more than 3,000 business clients.


Curb, the app formerly known as Taxi Magic, allows users to hail and pay for a metered taxi ride, as well as book a yellow cab in advance. Available in 65 US cities, Curb connects users with 90 cab companies, providing 35,000 cars driven by professional taxi or for-hire drivers. Payment is generally via the app but in some places cash is accepted. The company was taken over last autumn by electronic payments systems provider Verifone.


This Southeast Asia app can be used in cities such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Manila and has 200,000 drivers. All rides are legal and insured, and passengers can pay through the app or with cash. There is the option of “standard” and “limo” taxis.

By Jenny Southan