Internet-linked phones have been changing the way we travel through big cities for some time now. Mobile sites and apps combined with GPS allow us to see real-time arrival estimates for trains and buses. If your city has bike-share, you can even use your phone to find out just how many bikes are in the nearest station. But for so long, taxis seemed to lag behind. Hailing a cab has until recently involved either a phone call or a raised hand.
That's finally changing. For years, Alexandria, Virginia's Taxi Magic was the only major online option, but the San Francisco-based sedan-booking service Uber has since begun to branch into a lower-cost traditional taxi service, and Hamburg's myTaxi has also recently launched in the United States.
Conveniently enough, all three options now compete in my city, Washington, D.C.—a city that, until 2008, subjected taxi passengers to a perplexing zone-fare system that earned nationwide scorn.
Over eight trips booked and completed through these apps, Uber Taxi—with apps for not just iOS and Android, but also Windows—offered by far the best user experience. Catching a cab via Uber Taxi barely differs from ordering up a more expensive black Uber town car, except it's perhaps slightly less obvious when your ride has shown up. (To help you identify your cab on a busy street, the app displays not just the taxi's license plates but the car's make and model, a detail Taxi Magic and myTaxi both leave out.)
The fare you pay—billed to a stored credit card, with tip included—will vary depending on which city you're in, but in D.C. it runs a good deal less than traditional Uber, based instead on regular metered rates plus a $2 dispatch fee and 20 percent gratuity added automatically. Right now, the service only operates in Washington, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, as well as Paris and Toronto, but Uber is trying (and in some places, failing) to expand elsewhere.
Taxi Magic covers far more ground, including 45 U.S. cities, but lacks Uber's elegance.
You can't ask its app-—for iOS and Android—for the nearest taxi but instead have to choose a particular taxi fleet. And your choice, in turn, affects the simplicity of the service. In a D.C. Yellow Cab taxi, I had to show a confirmation code on the app's screen to the driver to complete my transaction (Greater Greater Washington editor David Alpert had a much worse experience); an Arlington Red Top cab needed no such extra step.
Booking through Taxi Magic's app incurs whatever fee normally applies to dispatched cabs, plus a $1.50 surcharge if you pay by credit card through the app.
I wanted to like myTaxi after seeing it had taken the thoughtful step of making itself available through the car2go app--you shouldn't have to use a separate app for every possible crosstown conveyance to decide your routing. (That option is iOS-only, something myTaxi didn't spell out at first.)
But myTaxi's Android app is outright horrible. Every time you switch to another app—say, when the cabbie calls you to confirm the pickup—or even when the screen locks, returning to the app requires a long wait for it to log you back in. It can't even auto-complete addresses intelligently: When I'd typed in "1353 H St NE Washington," the app suggested I meant a Washington Street in Albuquerque.
And it took too long to get a payment to go through the app. On my first try, I realized it had never sent the SMS that was supposed to validate my account. On a second test, with minutes to go before my train would depart Union Station, the app spent a long minute with "Sending message" on its pay screen before I panicked, backed out of the app and handed over a credit card. On a third try, the pay button never appeared.
Finally, on the fourth attempt, everything synced up for me and the driver (weirdly enough, the same guy who had picked me up on the first trip). MyTaxi doesn't charge dispatch or credit-card-payment surcharges and leaves the tip up to you, giving it its only real edge over its competitors.
Top image: Orhan Cam/Shutterstock