BUSINESS: UBER in Barranquilla – A better taxi service?

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An Uber driver in Barranquilla

Some of you may already have heard about Uber, the new cab service which has been rolling on the streets of Barranquilla for over a year now. If you’re like me, and you often take taxis, you’re going to love this company.

Uber, and its slightly cheaper cousin, UberX, have been taking the world by storm, and are, depending on your perspective, either a phenomenal blessing or a travesty of fairness. Uber is a new kind of taxi service; their focus is on providing easy access to cab service that doesn’t just get you from point A to point B; it gets you to your destination in style and comfort and unbelievably, usually at the same price (and sometimes less) than a regular taxi.

Uber harnesses a smart-phone application to let users make a trip request which is then routed to Uber drivers. With this app, you don’t even have to know your address; they’ll locate you with GPS and come to pick you up. You can also track the driver, so you know when they’ll arrive and you can see a photo of their face plus you see the car’s license plate so that when the car comes, you can feel safe in the knowledge that the driver is indeed the person you requested.

All you need is a credit card on file to use Uber’s service and for me, that’s just great – no more having to carry cash around. On the other hand, Uber has effectively shunned a massive potential market by refusing to accept alternative payment forms such as the pre-paid cards used with Transmetro. I’ve heard that it’s because they don’t want to risk their image as an “exclusive” service by opening their doors to the rank and file. I frankly doubt that; it’s more likely there aren’t sufficient drivers to handle the added capacity. In other cities such as New York and London, Uber accepts payments from multiple sources including Google Wallet and Paypal.

Nowadays there are many smartphone-based applications to request taxis, but Uber takes it to a whole new level. With Uber, almost anyone who has spare time and a vehicle can operate as a taxi with Uber and make some extra cash. In fact, Uber has seen a rise in the amount of retirees registering to drive because of the added income it offers plus the opportunity for them to feel useful and meet people. Uber is more than happy to take them because of their experience and likelihood to drive more safely than younger drivers.¹ So why do people want to drive with Uber? Unlike a regular taxi, drivers don’t have to worry about licensing or expensive certifications because they aren’t true taxi drivers – they don’t have any part in the payment process.  Here’s a great article about how that works.

Moreover, working as an Uber driver can be extremely profitable. In fact, a study conducted in New York City showed that some Uber drivers were making almost US$100,000 a year; more than double the income of a typical corporate sales manager.

Uber Technologies was founded in 2009 by two Americans living in San Francisco, California who wanted to offer a better alternative to calling and waiting for an operator to request a cab. Obviously, the idea has blossomed into something much more. Uber taxis are now available all over the world and are well known as being top providers of customer service. When you step into an Uber car, you feel like a client should; well taken care of. Many Uber drivers offer candies or gum, and some even have courtesy bottles of water. Uber is not unlike an executive car service but is affordable and accessible to the average person.

Driving with Uber isn’t a free-for-all. In fact, the service has some very specific requirements for drivers. Unlike regular taxis which are often quite old and uncomfortable and sometimes lacking AC, Uber cars are generally newer than typical cabs, and plus, are always clean and comfortable. Drivers are expected to maintain high standards of customer service; you are their guest, and the drivers need to be friendly and welcoming.

After each trip, customers are asked by the application to rate their experience with the service on a scale up to 5. Your feedback matters to Uber, and the company is swift to deal with any driver who doesn’t provide a great experience for their customers.

I’ll give you an example of an incredible experience I had with Uber. Last November, I was standing near Parque Washington waiting for an Uber I had ordered through the app. Unfortunately, the driver couldn’t locate me from the GPS, and so he called me, but I couldn’t understand his accent and I wasn’t able to help him find me. I told him not to bother coming and I took another Uber instead. Later that night I received an apology email from Uber informing me that they had refunded all my trips for the day because they saw that I had been charged twice at the same time – once by the car I took and once by the guy who I had canceled. So, let’s lay this out – without my having said anything, they took it upon themselves to fix an error they had made, apologize to me, and incredibly, refund my trips. That’s excellent service. And that’s why Uber might actually be worth US$70 billion, more than Ford and GM.

What kind of service have you received from regular taxi drivers here in Barranquilla? How many times have you been told they won’t go where you want because traffic is too heavy? Or having arrived at the location, being asked for far more money that the trip was worth. Or even worse, having a driver who thinks he’s in NASCAR and guffaws at the suggestion of slowing down. How many taxis have you been in where the smell was so bad you had to open the window? How many of them had terrible stains on the seats? How many had no AC or had doors that didn’t lock? How many times have you worried about your safety?

These issues are real. Almost everyone I know has made complaints about the regular taxi service. Almost everyone I know can tell you a story about bad service. Now, I don’t want to use such a broad brush – the truth is that there are some great taxi drivers who are very friendly and personable and who drive safely, obeying the laws. In fact, when I first came to Colombia and I was just learning Spanish, one of the things I enjoyed was chatting with cabbies on the way home from work. Unfortunately, the majority were not so welcoming and in the end, I was happy to make the switch to Uber.

Across the world, Uber has caused quite a ruckus, and not just about its great service. Obviously, because of its business model, Uber enjoys unfair competition, and regular taxi operators are understandably furious. In fact, at the end of July last year, drivers across Colombia staged a two-day, peaceful public protest against Uber, asking the government to ban the service. While an outright ban hasn’t yet made it onto the table, President Santos has met with authorities, including the Minister of Transport, Natalia Abello, to set in place a substantial list of regulations for so-called Luxury Vehicles.

I agree that regulations are needed.  When you get into a car, you want to be sure the driver is a professional. Plus, the industry should be fair for all drivers. That said, I think Uber is just what the industry in Barranquilla needs right now; some good old fashioned competition and a reminder that customer service is important and that if you don’t take care of your clients, they’ll go somewhere else.

 

 

1. Olson, Elizabeth (January 22, 2016). “Older Drivers Hit the Road for Uber and Lyft”. New York Times.

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