The next traditional taxicab you hail in Chicago or New York City could be summoned through an Uber-like smartphone app, rather than by standing on a cold curb, whistling or shaking your arm furiously.
Officials in both cities have proposed smartphone apps to hail traditional taxicabs as one way to help cabbies and cab companies level the playing field when it comes to customers who want to find a ride by using an app on their mobile devices. Since the rise of ride-sharing services like Uber, Lyft and others, passengers have been using mobile devices more often to summon personal drivers, mostly at the expense of taxi companies that have been prevented from offering such tools by regulations written long before smartphones were ever invented.
These apps are dear to my heart. Back in college, I drove the streets of Madison, Wis., nightly, piloting a sleek, shiny traditional taxicab for Union Cab of Madison for four years. I competed against drivers of other companies for fares, but we all faced the same rules and regulations, keeping the system fair.
In New York City, Councilman Benjamin Kallos introduced an "e-hail" bill on Dec. 8 that would allow taxicab passengers to use a mobile app to electronically summon one of the city's 20,000 yellow cabs that traverse the city's streets, as well as additional green taxis that serve northern Manhattan, according to Sarah Anders, a Kallos spokeswoman. The proposal, which still has quite a road to travel before ever being finalized into law, has "generated a lot of interest from New Yorkers," said Anders.
Kallos' proposal came because "he wanted New Yorkers to have the opportunity to pick up yellow and green cabs on their phones conveniently," said Anders. "They know the fares [they'll be charged] in advance, and they trust yellow and green cabs. The future of e-hailing is inevitable, and we think this fits very well into that idea. We're very optimistic."
In Chicago, the city council just approved a similar taxi app, as well as several related measures aimed at helping traditional taxi companies get chances to get the business of customers who are seeking rides in newfangled ways, according to a Dec. 10 Reuters report.
The taxi apps are gaining support as traditional cab companies seek to find ways to stay in business as unregulated, nontraditional operations like Uber and Lyft work to capture their turf. Because they are not regulated like traditional taxi companies, such services can charge higher rates when the market will bear them, including when the weather is foul, and drivers are not licensed as taxi drivers, complain critics. That's not good for passengers.
This battle will continue, but hopefully, these apps can help drivers of traditional taxis who are being undercut by ride-sharing drivers who don't have to conform to the same laws and rules that regulate regular taxis. That distinction is just not fair.