Need a ride? 3 ridesharing and 2 taxi apps considered

Ridesharing services are on smartphones and in the news. We look at Uber, Lyft and Sidecar -- and two alternatives.

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When you launch the app, it comes up with two options: I'm Ready To Go and Pick Me Up Later -- it's the only one of the apps that lets you schedule a ride in the future, handy if you're going to the airport at 5 a.m. Unfortunately, that option isn't yet available in San Francisco, so I wasn't able to try it out.

Clicking I'm Ready To Go brings up the familiar map with your location marked on it and the app's best guess at your address. One thing I can say for Curb, it was the most accurate at determining the proper address. There's a Pick Me Up Here button and an ETA for when your cab will arrive. Pressing Pick Me Up Here brings up a screen where you can set your destination and get a fare estimate. (Curb is noticeably slower than the other apps at coming up with that estimate, however.) At that point, you click Book Ride. So far, so good.

The problem comes when the app starts trying to find you a driver. You get a warning that you that you may be assessed a fee if you cancel the ride after a driver accepts it. That wasn't an issue, though, because I never got a driver to accept the ride. The screen displayed "assigning ride -- thank you for your patience" for five minutes, and then finally announced no rides were available. That happened all three times I tried to use it, including one occasion that, had a driver picked me up, would have gotten the cab downtown just in time for rush hour. (I thought that'd make me an enticing fare.)

I can't help wondering if the "availability" of rides is really a euphemism for the willingness of a driver to accept the assignment. If you try to use Curb from a busy neighborhood, there may be taxis close by, but they can probably get hailed easily enough on the street and don't need to respond to your call. And if you're in a quiet neighborhood, they're probably not nearby and don't want to drive for 10 or 15 minutes to pick up a fare. Whatever the reason, the Curb app is a fine front end to a not-very-functional service.

Ironically, the problem I had is the kind of issue with traditional taxis (at least, those in San Francisco) that has led to the popularity of Uber, Sidecar, and Lyft in the first place. If hailing a cab with an app doesn't work any better than calling for one on the phone, it's hard to see where apps like Curb are going to help save the taxi business.

Way2ride

Availability: NYC and Philadelphia

Rates: Standard taxi fares

way2ride

Way2ride

New Yorkers and Philadelphians who get around their cities by hailing cabs may find themselves considering a new way to pay. Way2ride, an app associated with the Verifone point-of-sale tech system, allows taxi riders to pay for a ride without pulling out their wallet (and possibly leaving it on the seat). I tried out Way2ride using its Android app on a Moto X (2013) smartphone.

You register for the app by providing a name, password and at least one credit card. (You can provide more than one if, for example, you want to pay for some rides with a company card.)

Cabs using the system have a Way2ride button on the passenger touch video screen or will have a sticker pasted to the security shield that separates the driver and passenger compartments. To use the app, you hold your phone up to the video display, and the app confirms the ride. (If for some reason the connection doesn't work, you can enter the cab's check-in code into the app instead.)

Way2ride allows you to pre-select the percentage of the final fare that you would like to tip the driver, or you can choose it any time during or after the ride. You can also choose either to automatically pay as soon as the ride is over, or confirm the amount before the payment goes through.

The app tracks your receipts (a very useful feature for anyone who expenses their cab rides) and will email a copy if you want. And after the cab leaves, there is a button to call it back if you suddenly realize you've left something on the back seat.

One thing that Way2ride doesn't do is let you actually order a cab using the app. There is a button on the front page of the app that says, "I need a ride," but apparently the program is still in beta; riders who click on it are put on a waiting list.

It's nice to know that city cabs are trying to modernize their methods. However, for now, if you're somewhere in New York or Philadelphia and can't get a ride by sticking your hand out for a taxi, the alternatives are either a ridesharing service like Uber, Sidecar or Lyft -- or an old-fashioned phone call to a local car service.

-- Barbara Krasnoff

Bottom line

All in all, Sidecar's app was the one I ended up preferring. It's not as slick-looking as Uber's, but I appreciated getting a choice of drivers, knowing exactly what the fare would be in advance and seeing the route the app suggested. You can also see your ride history, which is handy for filling out expense reports.

Lyft was my second favorite, primarily because of the ability to designate home and work addresses for quick access -- other than that, there's little to differentiate it from Uber as far as the apps go.

Uber is the slickest app overall, with a slightly fewer number of choices presented in a clear, attractive package. Someone who wanted to truly "leave the driving to us" and not be bothered with details like route and tipping might prefer it for its lack of the sort of interactivity I appreciated in Sidecar.

And the third-party apps? Well, if the current functionality of Curb (which wasn't able to find an available ride) and Way2ride (which doesn't yet allow you to request a cab) is anything to go by, the more traditional taxi companies have a way to go in order to compete -- technologically, anyway -- with the ridesharing services.

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