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Controversial cab, ride-share apps reshape the face of transportation

Caitlin McGarry | April 2, 2013
Cities around the country are adapting to a new world in which transportation apps let you hail cabs, reserve private cars, or share rides with a few taps on your smartphone’s screen. Here's a status report from the front lines.

It happens all the time in every major city across the country: You plant one foot in the street, wave your arm, whistle, yell "Taxi!" But nothing works--the cabs, some full of passengers and others empty, whiz by.

Now, a handful of startups are wedging into that space between you and those cabs, a space just big enough for creative tech interpretations of what it means to get a lift.

Car-dispatch and ride-sharing apps such as Uber, Lyft, and SideCar are on the frontier of 21st-century transportation, figuring out the rules (and in some instances, helping to write them) as they go along. Here's some background on this segment of the evolution of transportation.

California gets Uber

It seemed to happen almost overnight. One day, you had just cabs and luxury-car services to choose from. The next, you had downloadable apps that would deliver a driver to you. No more futile arm-waving. No more whistling.

Of course, the change wasn't actually an overnight occurrence. The process of developing the services, recruiting drivers, building a following, and expanding into cities that haven't exactly been rolling out the welcome mat has taken at least a year, if not more for some startups.

California is a natural testing ground for transportation apps because of its high population of early adopters of new technologies. Uber was one of the first taxi apps on the market, launching in San Francisco in 2010 on iOS and Android.

Although Uber now has a variety of services, it started out connecting passengers with the drivers of already licensed private high-end sedans and SUVs (most of them black).

Uber Black remains the core service, but the company has added UberX (normal cars at lower rates), Uber SUV (on the higher end), and Uber Taxi (an e-hail dispatch service). (Note that not all services are available in all Uber-served cities.)

In San Francisco, Uber Black starts at a base fare of $7, with an additional $4 per mile if the car is driving faster than 11 mph (this means a lower charge for a car caught in gridlock).

A minimum fare is $15. Uber Black typically costs more than a taxi, but the company says its high-end cars and reliable service are worth the extra cash.

Uber immediately made a splash in the market, drawing fans, investors, and protesters who claimed that the company was violating transportation law by acting as a cab company with no license or insurance.

Like its ride-sharing counterparts Lyft and SideCar, Uber claims it isn't providing transportation services, but merely serving as a platform for people to find rides. Passengers don't pay drivers directly; they link their credit-card information to the app and then pay with the press of a button when the ride is over.


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