This city’s transportation system has momentum. It’s also a city that’s been doing well to assist with the transition of South Africans – of a broad economic rainbow – to be more supportive of public transportation, something that has a bit of a stigma of something you have to take not choose to take. It’s a place with a decent spread of rail, various buses, minibuses and private taxis; with trips that usually don’t run for more than a couple of kilometres. It’s one of the few cities where you actually get shamed by your friends (even those born in the eighties) when you try to get behind the wheel after having had a drink or two. It’s also a place where, to its credit, the police issue the highest amount of drunk arrests in the country, more than double the national average. It’s a city where most people have access to public transport of some sort. Of course, as with everything over here, it depends on your level of income and where you live, but that’s another post altogether.
For those fortunate enough to take metered taxis around – be it because they don’t want to own a car, want to go and party and not worry about drunk driving or just in need of a ride to the airport – the fantastic service Uber has arrived at our doorstep. And I literally mean doorstep, for that’s where they’ll pick you up from.
How the app works
A few different startups have tried to improve the metered taxi service, and for good reason. Whenever I called my preferred taxi company, it will always be a repeat of more-or-less the same script:
“What’s your name? What’s your number? Where are you going? How many people are traveling? OK, that will be about 20 minutes”
Which could range from 20 minutes to me giving up altogether. What I wanted to hear isn’t really difficult to build in with little effort:
“Oh, welcome back, Werner! We see here that you haven’t taken a ride with us in a while. I’d be happy to give you 10% off this trip. Are we picking you up at your house or are you out somewhere?”
There has also been a big increase in rigged meters, which is purely an anecdotal observation, but makes for increasingly awkward (or threatening) moments when you show your taxi driver that for every kilometer on your phone’s GPS, his meter shows two.
First there was Taxi Rank, which was (or is since I see their site is still online) a failure. The taxi companies were terrible at training the taxi companies and did very little in the ways of marketing.
After that I used Zapacab, which fared much better. I had quite a few emails and phone calls with their founders and they seem to have the right mind about things. It’s a mobile site that detects your location and shows you the taxis around you (when last I checked with them, they had five of the more reputable companies on board). You then “zap” the cab on your smartphone and they pick you up at your location (you can see their progress on the map from the convenient seat of your favourite watering hole).
Zapacab’s mobile site and Uber’s iOS app, side by side
They also followed up with me (as one of their first users) and seem to be gaining ground, but they have massive obstacles with regard to training all the drivers to use their systems, improving the user experience and find ways to build a stronger brand for themselves (since taxis are generally a matter of convenience; the closest one will do).
Uber hits Cape Town
Uber is definitely in a category of its own and it has managed to get three crucial, thus-far missed, aspects right:
- user experience
- driver training
The UX of the app and the whole booking process is fantastic (and yes, there is a mobile site for those on BlackBerry). Not only do you see the available cars in your area, you can also see pictures of the different drivers and the ratings they received from other Uber users. You can (rather accurately) determine what a ride is going to cost you so that you’re not stuck with a fat bill at the end of your trip. Best of all, said bill is paid with the credit card linked to their system. They even email you a nice summary of your journey (great for those needing to expense these kinds of thing for work). And I haven’t gotten to the actual cars yet!
I’m no car snob. I love my twelve-year old Mazda and think it does what it should just fine. If I had to replace it, I’d probably get another one (but maybe with less than 200,000 on the odometer). Having however taken my fair share of taxis (metered and otherwise, licensed and not) I’ve also had my brushes with reckless drivers, cars that aren’t exactly roadworthy and having broken down once on St Patrick’s eve right smack in the middle of de Waal drive in the early morning hours (it made quite the sight: me dressed in all-green on the side of the road with a broken down car, the driver making the 2km run to the nearest petrol station).
Uber’s fleet is unbelievable and when they say luxury, they mean it. This past weekend I took a couple of Mercedes E Classes (and once an S Class), with the sharpest chauffeurs from local limo companies (they prefer “limo” to “escourt”) asking you questions like “Would you like bottled water, sir?” and “Is the temperature fine back there?”. They were confident in handling the new tech, seemed very optimistic about the extra work that Uber is bringing them and will do things that make me a little uncomfortable like opening the door.
S-class, whatever class that might be.
It’s nice. A bit uncomfortably nice, since I’m not one for fancy pampering like that and at the end of my first night out had to sit and stare at the wall for half an hour trying to calm my head after being exposed to something so luxurious, when minutes before a beggar stood at the side of the sedan, dressed in not much more than a blanket. Such it is, living in South Africa.
Lastly, Uber has their branding sorted. It’s the type of brand that makes for a cult following (just look at how much I’ve written about them so far!), the type of service which you’d choose over any other taxi that drives past.
Their Cape Town launch (which they call a “secret launch” since the availability of vehicles is still quite limited) came just a week after they raised $258m from Google Ventures. That was after $11m was raised in their first year, $37m the year thereafter. On the topic of money, it’s interesting to note how their pricing model is different for different cities: R60 base fare, R10,90 per km, R3,90 per minute, R85 minimum in Johannesburg and R12 base fare, R9 per km, R1 per minute, R45 base fare in Cape Town. It shows a good comparison in terms of competition, availability, distances and frequency with which a driver can expect to pick passengers up between the two cities, but the Cape Town fares seem to be considerably lower than most other places (at least for vehicles in the same class).
Their biggest threat here would be a relatively small customer base (but I expect tourists to make a fair chunk of their target audience) and unionised action from the metered taxi associations. That said, they nestled themselves above the standard of most metered taxis and if they just want to get a foothold on the continent, Cape Town and Johannesburg makes for excellent starting points.
Expect to see them partner up with Whiskey Live and the JnB Met, you’ll start seeing their advertisements in bars and restaurants and hey, you might just find yourself on the back seat of a luxury sedan. If you’d like to give it a try, sign up here using the promo code nopjk for R90 in credit, which should not only cover your fare, but might also convert you into a human advertisement for the company.
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