Why Taxis Suck and What You Can Do About It

First time in a city, with luggage, and after a long flight I’m not likely going to mess with figuring out public transit (and I won’t likely pre-research it, either). It may be cheaper. Sometimes it’s quicker (traffic-depending) and sometimes it takes much longer (with wait times and changing trains). But I was still much more often given to a cab.

Problem is that I hate taxicabs. Not so much for the price, they can well be worth it. But for the condition the vehicles are usually in. In most cities I’ll find myself sitting on uncomfortable vinyl seats. The driver is rarely using air conditioning, sometimes he will if I ask (and it’s usually a he). My biggest beef is that most of the time I get into a car with worn out shocks. Add in deteriorating roads and I’ll often find myself feeling sick by the end of the ride. A minute or so out of the cab and I’m fine, but it’s still not pleasant.

Add in that the driver may not really know where we’re going, and that the legroom in most cabs isn’t great (and cab drivers don’t proactively move the front seat forward, even in cities without plexiglass barriers that are going to continue to limit room even if he did), which isn’t just a comfort issue but I tend to try to be productive during these rides, pulling out my laptop and turning on my mifi internet device.

So I was using cabs, paying for it, and hating every minute of it.

Megan McArdle offers a nice history of taxis and their regulation in the May issue of the Atlantic. Price fixing began in the 30s, New York City’s limit on the number of cabs allowable was also fixed in the 30s and remains about the same today as it was then. The right to operate a single cab in New York sells for about a million dollars.

Almost all the everyday complaints about cabs trace back to this regulatory cocktail. Drivers won’t take you to the outer reaches of your metropolitan area? The regulated fares won’t let them charge you more to recover the cost of dead-heading back without a return customer. Cabs are poorly maintained? Blame restricted competition, and the inability to charge for better quality. Cabbies drive like maniacs? With high fixed costs for cars and gas, and no way to increase their earnings except by finding another fare, is it any wonder that they try to get from place to place as fast as possible?

(In DC, airport runs from Dulles are also a monopoly which is really environmentally unfriendly — cars drop people off at the airport but can’t pick up passengers, other cars take folks from the airport to town and then return to the airport mostly empty — that’s twice the number of trips than are needed.)

Funny thing, I was never a car service guy even though a car service solves most of those issues. I’m not sure if it was the perceived cost, the hassle of arranging it in advance (I only ever arranged cars in advance in unfamiliar countries where the service is low cost and I’m arranging much of my vacation travel planned out ahead of time anyway), or that I simply didn’t see myself as a car service kind of person. Mommy Points may call me “Mr. Fancy Pants” (because I can meet minimum spend requirements for credit card signup bonuses), but I come from pretty modest roots and it’s not the sort of thing that’s part of my life experience even if I travel the world in first class and manage to finagle pretty good suite upgrades.

But modern car services are overcoming the problems inherent to cabs. And modern technology is making those services easy to use, accessible, cheap, and efficient.

Back in January though Jetsetter was offering a flash sale on airport car service from Groundlink where, when combined with a $25 new member credit, you could pre-purchase an airport transfer for as little as $4. Since Jetsetter didn’t really intend to pay out $25 first time user bonuses and $25 referral bonuses on a $29 purchase the deal got a bit ‘complicated’ (here’s one piece of it from the referral credit side). But it worked out nicely for me, and I was introduced to the car service option.

I’ve continued to use Groundlink because I’ve often come across Groupons and such with them, and because there are frequently coupon codes available as well (which seem to work if you’re aren’t logged in, but not if you are).

They also have a functional mobile app, and on-demand service in Manhattan.

On demand service is actually pretty key. At least it is for me. In my Johnny Jet travel style interview I explained that ‘what I always seem to forget’ is making car reservations. And I hate to make reservations anyway because I never know quite when I’ll be ready to leave until I’m.. just about ready to leave.

Modern technology also allows for statistical aggregation and analysis, predicting accurately when cars will be needed and where.

Take Uber, an on demand service takes reservations by mobile website, by mobile app, and by text. They’re operating so far in Boston, Chicago, London, Los Angeles, New York City, Paris, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, Vancouver, and Washington DC.

You download an app, give them your credit card information, and when you want a car to show up, your phone tells them where you are. A few taps and you can track a car that’s on it’s way in 5 or 10 minutes. Payment is easy, gratuity is included, they just bill the credit card on file. Charges are by time and distance, and seem to me except for the shortest trips (where the minimum fare is higher) to be about 50% more than taxis.

For booking by test message, you text the address and city you’re at and a car shows up. (Your phone number is registered with them so they know who called the car and how to bill you.)

Uber is bringing out an even lower cost version of their service as well, though they’re facing opposition in some cities from taxi lobbies.

With this signup link, Uber will give you $10 off your first ride (the referrer, in this case me, will also earn a $10 credit — feel free to list your own referral link in the comments after you’ve signed up if you’d like).

It’s a pretty amazing world we live in, a few taps on a phone and a clean comfortable car turns up within minutes to take you where you want to go, there’s a modest price premium over taxis but over time that will be competed away unless the lobbyists for higher fares have their way.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »



  1. @Phil.

    NYC cabs cheap? Really?

    Hong Kong must be one of the cheapest places for a cab, all regulated and metered.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *