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The Uber app for ordering a taxi is popular and efficient – no wonder Paris taxi drivers turned violent over this online booking service. (Getty Images/Fuse)
The Uber app for ordering a taxi is popular and efficient – no wonder Paris taxi drivers turned violent over this online booking service. (Getty Images/Fuse)

Road Sage

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Striking Parisian taxi drivers went nuts recently. On Jan. 14, groups of up to 20 incensed cabbies smashed car windows and slashed tires, and at least one person was injured. What was the object of their ire? Vehicles ordered via Uber, an app that allows users to hail a car with the press of a button or a stroke on the iPhone. “Attackers tried to get in the car,” one rider tweeted. “But our brave @uber driver manoeuvred us to safety, changed the tire on the freeway and got us home.”

Based in San Francisco, Uber Technologies started in 2010 and is available in 26 countries in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. In Canada, it’s offered in Toronto and Montreal. The thinking is straightforward: Users register for an Uber account online with a credit card and then they can use the app to electronically hail a cab or a luxury vehicle. Uber uses a GPS to find the nearest taxis or black cabs (taxis affiliated with traditional companies can use Uber). The customer can get an estimate prior to the trip. It’s a cashless transaction. Tip, any tolls and government sales taxes are all included. The customer receives an electronic receipt.

Convenient and customer-friendly, you can think of Uber as the “economy plus” version of taxi travel. It’s also a favourite with money men. Last summer, Google invested $285-million (U.S.) into Uber. It has an estimated worth of $3.5-billion, according to the Financial Times, making it one of the world’s most valuable private technology companies.

And that’s why Parisian taxi drivers are so violently upset.

Eighteen months ago, Uber was launched in Paris (a notoriously difficult place to book a cab) and it quickly became efficient and popular. Cabbies, who rely on hailed street fares, were outraged. The French government quickly passed a rule that requires private services like Uber to wait 15 minutes before picking up a fare, as a way of returning service to its pitiful pre-Uber level.

I’ve been using Uber since November. My first trip was a seamless $113 fare in a Prius from San Jose to San Francisco International Airport. I use it regularly and I’ve even called Uber taxis to pick up friends and family. It’s addictive. Every time I use an Uber car I ask the driver how he or she likes it. I’ve yet to get a bad report. I can see why traditional taxi services are worried. Using Uber is a lot like taking a regular cab except with a few subtle differences.

Here’s how a conventional taxi trips go:

  • You call for a cab. You’re told it will be there in five or 10 minutes. It shows up in five to 55 minutes.
  • Your cab arrives. The driver does not get out. If you have luggage, he or she contemptuously pops the trunk.
  • You get in the taxi. You tell the driver where you’re going. He or she may know how to get there. If not, the driver uses GPS. The driver talks via earpiece the entire ride.
  • At your destination: you ask if he or she takes credit cards. The driver tells you some credit cards are forbidden or hits you with a mysterious “service charge” in order to let use your Visa card.
  • If you pay cash and ask for a receipt, he or she hands you a blank one.

Here’s a typical Uber trip:

  • You order a cab. Uber texts you a confirmation of the driver’s name, make of car, his or her customer service rating and the exact amount of time it will take the cab to get there.
  • The car arrives. You say hello and tell the driver where you’re going.
  • He or she drives you there.
  • You say thank you and get out.
  • Your receipt arrives via text or e-mail.

Uber has its detractors and there are a swath of pressing legal questions about the legitimacy of the business.

Uber also employs “surge pricing” and that means when demand goes up, so can fares. When Toronto flooded in the summer of 2013, Uber’s rates increased. Customers were angry. Recently in New York City, New Year’s Eve revellers were surprised to find that rides normally costing $20 were $100.

Uber maintains that higher prices put more drivers on the road and therefore helps supply meet demand. To me it’s simple: If you don’t want to pay the fare, don’t book the car. If you’re too lazy to get an estimate before your trip, you deserve to pay more.

Those are a couple of the shadows in this otherwise beautiful picture. They can’t be dismissed but they aren’t enough to stop me.

In fact, one of Uber’s founders is planning an Uber-style on-demand doctor’s service. I’ve got a fever and the only prescription is more Uber.

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