Uber: changing the face of urban transportation

Uber: changing the face of urban transportationFor more than a century now, we have had taxis in some shape or form. They’ve always been pretty much the same – sure, the cars have become more sophisticated, safer and economical with the passing of the years, but otherwise, the basic premise of the taxi service has long been familiar. Things look like changing now though, in large part thanks to a certain service known as Uber.Certainly, one might have thought that the technology associated with taxi services – even the very ways in which they operate – would have changed more profoundly over the years, at least when one considers that our city streets are more choked up than ever with cars. The need for quick and convenient urban transportation has clearly never abated – so how is a service like Uber responding to it?
Uber was launched in 2009, and is simple in its premise, its apps making it easier for taxi drivers and riders to connect. With a current leadership team including Travis Kalanick, Thuan Pham, Ryan Graves and Salle Yoo, the company has taken much of the hassle out of calling for a taxi – the prospective taxi-hailer simply uses their mobile phone to request, ride and pay.Not only does the app show when a car is on its way so that the user can quickly and comfortably hail a ride, but they can even follow the progress of the cab on a street map, represented by a blip. The app is gaining real currency among tech-savvy customers across the world, but how could it point the way to the future of taxi services in general?If one was in any doubt about the massive impact that Uber has made in just one city – NYC – they would only need to look to figures released last month by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission. It revealed that there were now 14,088 registered Uber cars, compared to 13,587 of the yellow cabs that have long been ubiquitous here.That’s quite a changing of the guard, although this shouldn’t be over-emphasized – after all, there are still around 440,000 yellow cab rides every day, compared to a mere 20,000 to 30,000 Uber rides, a difference that can be attributed to Uber drivers often owning their own cars and working less than 40 hours a week. In contrast, the typical NYC yellow cab is on the roads on an almost constant 24 hours a day basis, due to being owned by a taxi company and having more than one driver.As Meera Joshi, the taxi commission chairwoman observed, in reference to the black sedans typically used by Uber drivers: “Yellow cab rides significantly outstrip the number of black car rides, so the number of their affiliated vehicles in and of itself doesn’t paint a complete picture.”Nonetheless, there can be little doubting the massive impact that Uber has had on local taxi transportation since its introduction to NYC in 2011. This indicates that the app is at the forefront of our changing ways of using automobiles.Uber is now available in locations across North America, from Akron, Ann Arbor and Atlanta to Vancouver, Washington D.C. and Wilkes-Barre Scranton, to say nothing of such parts of central and South America as Barranquilla, Santiago and Rio de Janeiro.It has even extended its reach throughout Europe, Middle East and Africa, so that if you find yourself in Abu Dhabi, Athens, Brussels, Krakow, Prague or London – to name just some places – it’ll be a cinch for you to whip out your phone and hail a suitable local cab. Add areas of the Asia-Pacific region like Adelaide, Tokyo, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to the list, and it’s clear that the app is making its presence felt across the globe – in some 57 countries to date, in fact.One part of the world where Uber has not taken the same tight grip that it has in the likes of NYC, however, is that perennially tough-to-crack market, China. The lower end of the Chinese taxi-hailing services market is already dominated by the local players Kuaidi Dache and Didi Dache, which only last month announced a merger that threatens to make Uber’s task even tougher.In late 2014, the Beijing-based Internet consultancy Enfodesk released the results of a study indicating that Kuaidi hogged 56.5 percent of the taxi app market, compared to Didi’s 43.3 percent – meaning just a 0.2 percent share for all other participants.If there’s hope of Uber making real inroads in the Chinese market, however, it is surely at the higher end, where it offers an UberBlack service for those seeking more luxurious transportation. It also recently held a oneday promotional event in Shanghai, designed to drum up interest in airborne services in the country.This is in addition to the boat-hailing and ricksaw-hailing services that the firm has already rolled out in China, as it demonstrates the possibilities for its technology well beyond traditional taxi hailing.It’s worth pointing out at this point that not everyone is an unqualified fan of Uber – traditional cab companies, for example, have understandably felt threatened. Kalanick admitted in 2013 that “D.C. is a real pain in my butt”, after a late-night attempt to pass a law effectively banning Uber in Washington. It took a voracious response on social media, including 37,000 tweets, to eventually thwart the so-called Uber Amendment.Meanwhile, back in NYC, although prices for Uber and traditional yellow cabs are comparable, there have been some complaints from users of the former service about “surge pricing” at times of peak demand, as well as fare add-ons for larger vehicles. Nor have some taxi drivers and their advocates been too thrilled by what they see as a flooding of the market that has put downward pressure on drivers’ average incomes.Chinese regulators have sought to protect state-regulated taxi companies by cracking down on private cars that make use of Internet-hailing apps. Many of the biggest taxi companies in the country are in municipal government ownership and have capped fares, and the Chinese government is continuing to look at regulating the market for ride-hailing apps.Uber’s growth so far suggests that it will spend the next few years being so much more than a taxi-hailing service. Indeed, the company itself has declared that it has big plans for reducing the number of cars on our roads, making our cities more livable. That’s on the basis that Uber is already cheaper for many people than owning a car, the company adding in an October 2014 blog post that it remained “committed to changing people’s lives by revolutionizing urban The firm said that it would do that by not only “reducing traffic congestion, one ride at a time”, but in so doing, also making it quicker and easier to find a parking space. It added that it was also interested in “bringing back date nights where you can both enjoy a few cocktails and not have to worry about how you’ll get home”, and wanted to ensure that “you have a safe and reliable ride within minutes of requesting it after a night on the town or when you find yourself working late”.The company has aspired to take a million cars off the roads of London – despite the inevitable increase in the city’s population over the coming years – at the same time as creating 100,000 jobs, through peer-to-peer services like uberX as well as the car-sharing service, uberPOOL.Far from just an app, Uber is playing a big role in reshaping personal and urban transportation for the 21st century, and we just can’t wait to see how it all unfolds in the years to come. by Benjamin Kerry & Gavin Lenaghan

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