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Taxi Companies Compete With On-Demand Black Car Service
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Hailing a cab is no longer the only option for a quick ride in Columbus.
A change to the city charter allows black car rides to be available on-demand. Workers in the niche market say itâ€™s what clients want. But some in the taxicab industry say it encroaches on their customers.
Black car service used to mean pre-arrangements and hourly rates. But a change in state law no longer requires livery drivers to operate on an hourly basis. And in December, the city of Columbus followed suit to allow black car service to operate on-demand.
Word began to spread around the city last fall about a new smartphone app that connects customers with local livery drivers.
Before I even mentioned the appâ€™s name Joe Dicesare said, “Uber.â€
I heard about it, this week, from some friends who were using it that night. So Iâ€™ve downloaded the app and waiting to use it.
Simply put, Uber is a middleman. It partners with existing livery drivers and links them with riders.
Uber Columbus general manager James Ondrey explained how the app works.
â€œYouâ€™ll be able to punch in an address or use your GPS, and the app will be able to tell you how many minutes away the closest driver is. And youâ€™re able to push a button and within minutes that private driver will come to you,” Ondrey said. “You get there in a very classy, safe and reliable ride.â€
The service is more expensive than a cab. It costs about 50 percent more, depending on the trip. But Uber markets its convenience; its users donâ€™t pay the driver. Instead, fares are charged to a credit card stored on the app.
Columbus officials are negotiating with another company that wants to bring on-demand ride-sharing to the city. But there are insurance and licensure kinks to work out first.
Not everyone is happy about cityâ€™s changing car-for-hire industry. Independent taxi drivers say itâ€™s cutting into their business.
Ahmed Aliwe is among a dozen or so taxi drivers waiting for customers at Port Columbus International Airport.
â€œIâ€™m driving Orange Cab, cab number 889.â€
So far, Aliwe said he hasnâ€™t seen a decline in customers since Uber began operations in Columbus. But heâ€™s convinced he will…in time.
â€œItâ€™s going to affect our business, and itâ€™s going to maybe destroy our business,” he said.
The Independent Taxicab Association is a few miles away on Switzer Road. Habtay Ocbazghi is its president.
Ocbazghi maintains pricing for Uber cars is unfair. Taxis are metered. They must charge the same rate no matter what. But Uber cars charge more during periods of high demand. The company uses an algorithm similar to the ones used by airlines to adjust the fares, and prices during very high demand periods could triple.
Ocbazghi said itâ€™s unfair taxi drivers cannot make more during peak periods.
â€œWhat we like is fair competition, but the way I see Uber and the taxi industry is not the fair competition, not this time,” Ocbazghi said.
Unlike cabs, Columbus public safety spokeswoman Amanda Ford said Uber drivers cannot be hailed.
â€œYou know, if youâ€™re walking down High Street you can hail a cab. You canâ€™t hail [livery drivers] that way. Everything has to be done through the online app or through phone dispatch,” Ford said.
Taxis and Uber cars face similar licencing regulations. Drivers must undergo background checks, be insured and have their cars inspected. And Uber drivers pay the same fees as taxi drivers.
The taxi industry is trying to keep up with the on-demand livery service.
Columbus Yellow Cab dispatchers take taxi requests by phone, but the company also has a smartphone app with similar features to Uber. In fact, its president Jeff Kates said the app has been in place for two years. Itâ€™s just not widely known.
â€œThatâ€™s where the taxicab industry has not done a very good job,” Kates said. “Iâ€™m not sure our customers know whether they need an account set up for their business, or they need to order online, or they text in an order or they want to use a smartphone app. These are all features that some of the more progressive taxi companies are doing.â€
When asked if itâ€™s time for independent taxi companies to consider new technology to keep up with competition, the Independent Taxicab Association’s Ocbazghi said it is.
â€œThatâ€™s what competition brings. And also, I think it helps us,” he said. “We just didnâ€™t think of it. It is [an] even better way to do it. Soon weâ€™re going to be digital and having this system, too.â€