The time to pick a ridesharing app for your phone isn't when it's dark and cold, there aren't any cabs to be had and you realize you'd really like a ride home. The time to download one is well before you need it.
Ridesharing has become a popular -- and controversial -- alternative to traditional taxi services. On the face of it, it seems simple enough: The apps match people needing a lift with drivers who use their own personal vehicles to give rides. You create an account with a service through the app, then use it to request a pickup from your location. The apps also handle payment through your saved credit card. Currently, the top three contenders are Uber, Lyft and Sidecar.
Traditional taxi services are not ignoring the situation, of course. They are not only putting pressure on local governments to regulate or even ban ridesharing services (for example, in December 2014, prosecutors in South Korea indicted Travis Kalanick, Uber's CEO), but are also coming out with their own mobile apps. So we've tried out a couple of third-party apps -- Curb and Way2ride -- that represent a new crop of alternatives that associate themselves with existing car services.
Come along for the ride.
Given the number of always-changing factors involved -- such as which drivers you happen to get, what city or town you're located in (services in Minneapolis or Atlanta may not be the same as those in Los Angeles or New York), what area in that city/town you need to leave from and get to, and what time you are planning to travel -- it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to definitively declare which of these offers the best transportation service.
As a result, we've focused on the features of the apps themselves: how they work, what choices they provide, how intuitively those choices are presented, and how much information they give you about your driver and your ride.
To test the apps, I installed them on both an iPhone 4S and an iPad 2 -- although there are no iPad-specific versions; the apps operate the same way on each device. (There are Android apps for each of these services as well.) I took two or three rides with each service, from both my quiet neighborhood in San Francisco and from relatively busy parts of town.
Availability: 200+ cities/areas in 53 countries
Rates: Vary by city, type of ride, current demand
Uber is the oldest and probably the most famous (or infamous) of the rideshare services. Officially launched in 2010, it now offers rides in more than 200 cities worldwide, including more than 100 in the U.S.
After you download the Uber app (free, like all the apps in this roundup), you set up an account with your email address (for sending receipts and so on), your mobile phone number and a password. The company then sends you a text message, to which you reply in order to confirm your phone number. After that, you create a profile with your name and set up an automated payment method. You can enter your credit card number manually or scan your card, or you can link your profile to your PayPal account.
Ordering a ride is quick and straightforward. The app opens with a map showing your current location (assuming you've given it permission to access your location) with the corresponding address listed at the top. (Check it, though -- with all these apps, the address is often off by a house or two.) The map also shows the location of nearby Uber cars. A big black button shows the estimated time to pickup; pressing the button summons your car.
Uber offers several levels of service, selected with a slider bar along the bottom of the screen. UberPool lets groups of one or two people split the ride (and the cost) with others along more or less the same route -- you get a 20% discount even if no matching rider is found and a 50% discount if they do find a rider to share your trip.
The second option, UberX, is a standard solo ride; the third, Black Car, calls up higher-end sedans or SUVs.
The Uber website also describes a Lux option, "the finest cars with prices to match." That option wasn't available on my copy of the app (which could mean it's not offered in San Francisco yet). The company is also rolling out a level of service called Taxi that will call traditional cabs. Drivers will use their meters, and the app will automatically add a 20% tip and a $1 booking fee.
After you click to confirm where you want to be picked up, you can enter your destination to get a fare estimate. You also get a confirmation screen that a driver is en route, giving their name and what kind of car they're driving, along with their photo. You can click on the description of the car to see its license number; clicking on the name of the driver brings up a screen that lets you call them or send a text message. (I used this feature to cancel a ride that I'd accidentally ordered.)
Unlike the other apps in this roundup, Uber doesn't give you a way to tip the driver when your ride is done; it just tells you your fare. You do get the chance to give your ride a star rating and leave a comment if you wish. (And the driver gets to rate you as well).
It's worth noting that this final screen was the first time I saw exactly how much I paid -- any fare I might have seen earlier was just an estimate.
Availability: 60+ U.S. cities/areas
Rates: Vary by city, type of ride, current demand
Lyft is the service that features cars with fuzzy pink mustaches on the front or on the dashboard -- silly, but actually helpful when you're waiting for your ride. It began in 2012 as a spinoff of a long-distance ridesharing service called Zimride, and was renamed Lyft in 2013.
The Lyft app is a nicer version of the Uber app -- it operates much the same way, but with a friendly turquoise and pink color scheme (starting with a pink balloon rising up on your screen) rather than Uber's starker black and white appearance. Unlike the other apps, registration doesn't require a credit card (though you'll need to register one for payment). And rather than replying to a text message, the message contains a confirmation code you enter into the app. Other than that, the process is basically identical.
The service gives you a map with a pin at your location and a readout of your address, animated cars moving around the nearby roadways, an estimate of how far away the nearest ride is, and a big button labeled "Request Lyft."
Lyft also offers multiple levels of service: Lyft Line (which is currently available only in San Francisco and Los Angeles) is a shared ride option that, Lyft says, can save up to 60% on the fare.
Plain Lyft is a personal ride, available for solo travelers or groups of up to four. And Lyft Plus will bring larger cars and SUVs, aimed at those traveling with suitcases or boxes. As with the Uber app, you select which service you want with a slider.
You can tap on your address to change your pickup point, bringing up a list of nearby businesses as well as a field for typing in a different address. On this screen, you can also save an address as "home" or "work" for easy selection next time -- unfortunately, you can't simply designate your current location as "home" or the destination you've already typed in as "work," but it's still a nice touch and a time-saver. When it does come time to enter your destination (after you've already requested a ride), you can choose from a list of previous addresses you've been picked up at or taken to.
After you request a ride with Lyft, the app tells you the name of the driver, what kind of car they're driving, and their license number. And as with the other apps, you can watch the little animated car get closer on the map.
Once you arrive at your destination, you see your fare and get the option of adding a tip. The app shows some preset amounts ($1, $2, $5, for example), or you can type in something else.
And finally, you get a chance to rate the ride and provide the reason for your rating (and your driver gets to rate you).
Availability: 10 U.S. cities/areas
Rates: Vary by driver/car, current demand
Sidecar started offering rides in early 2012 and drew attention when it offered free rides during the 2013 South by Southwest conference. Compared to Uber and Lyft, Sidecar feels like more of a "down home" (or "low rent," depending on your point of view) option. While Uber gives a sort of "let us handle everything" vibe, Sidecar involves more interaction -- which I preferred, as it turned out.
You create an account with Sidecar pretty much the same way you do with the other two services: Enter your name and mobile phone number, confirm the number by replying to a text message and supply a credit card for payment. One alternative this app offers is to create an account via Facebook, though of course you still have to supply a credit card.
When you launch the app, like the others it brings up a map with your location marked. A notation at the bottom tells you how far away the nearest Sidecar is, and the app immediately asks you to enter where you are going. Once you do, the app lists a choice of rides, with photos of the drivers and their cars, descriptions of the cars, their ETA to your location and the fares. You can sort the list by driver ETA, recommended ride or price, and make your selection accordingly.
Unlike the other two, Sidecar lets you choose which driver and/or car you want to use. If you're curious, you can tap on one of the photos to see a larger photo of the car and driver as well as a statement by the driver, if they've added one -- one of my choices described himself as a "funk specialist," while another said he was collecting money for his school.
If you wish, you can also switch back to the map to see the locations of the nearest rides and click on the car icons to see what kind they are and who the driver is. Some of the choices might be shared rides, while others are solo.
Like the other apps, Sidecar shows you the car approaching on the map while you're waiting.
Sidecar lets drivers set their own fare for a ride, based on algorithms -- the driver who explained the process to me, for example, had established that she would charge 110% of whatever the service calculated as a base fare. For one ride that I tried, prices ranged from $11 for a 2010 Toyota Yaris, through $22 for a 2010 Lincoln town car, up to $34 for a 2007 Toyota Camry hybrid.
The map also shows the route the app suggests the driver take. (Drivers are free to use their own GPS app, too.) This can come in handy if you're in a strange city and are nervous about whether a stranger might take you out of your way -- the map gives you an idea of what to expect. In my case, I was going to a friend's house, a route I drive a lot, and I could see that the suggested route was unnecessarily circuitous. I just directed the driver to my preferred route, and we went that way.
When you get to your destination, you can add a tip if you like, by pressing a plus-sign button next to the fare. Like the others, Sidecar also lets you rate your ride, and your driver can rate you. If you like a driver, you can make them a Favorite, so they always appear at the top of your list (if they're working at the time, obviously) and you can find their car on the map.
Third-party apps for taxi services
The convenience of the ridesharing services -- the ability to order up a ride when you want one from wherever you are, rather than competing with others on a street corner or hoping someone will come to your fringe neighborhood -- has helped them take a big bite out of traditional drive-for-hire businesses like taxis and limos. In tech-obsessed San Francisco, for example, taxi rides are down 65% over the past 15 months.
As a result, established taxi companies have begun to fight back by making use of third-party apps that purport to offer the same kind of services that Uber, Lyft and Sidecar do. These apps don't access a dedicated fleet; rather, they offer an interface to existing taxi companies.
We took a look at two of these: Curb and Way2ride. (I reviewed Curb in San Francisco; Computerworld reviews editor Barbara Krasnoff reviewed Way2ride in New York City.) Both are very different, and while each has interesting features, neither offers the convenience or level of service provided by the new ridesharing companies. In fact, at the moment Way2ride is little more than an alternative payment system, although the company says it will allow you to order cabs from the app in the future.
Availability: 60 cities/areas
Rates: Standard taxi fares (with occasional service fee of $1-$2)
I was hoping to be able to say that Curb is a valiant effort to bring the convenience of Uber, Sidecar and Lyft to traditional taxis, but unfortunately I can't. For whatever reason, I never managed to get a ride with Curb.
Curb does have a nicer splash screen than the three ridesharing apps, a sort of animated roadway that spells out the company name. You register a credit card (though, unlike the others, you have the option to pay cash for a ride if you want -- it's a regular taxi, after all). As with Uber, you can enter your credit card number by taking a picture of your card.