The Boston Cab Hailing App War of 2012

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I once avoided cabs at all cost.

I live downtown, so I walk just about anywhere I can. After that, I’ll cave and take the 1 or the Orange Line only when time is a factor or when it’s really cold. Until, perhaps, just this last spring, my last resort was a taxi. Sometimes you have to get to the airport early in the morning or there are enough people to justify the expense. Otherwise: no thank you.

In the last six months, my attitude has changed a little. It wasn’t the expense alone that drove me crazy, it was trying to find a cab. My options in the South End were call ahead and hope; wait on Mass Ave and hope; or walk up to the Pru where I was practically at the T anyway.

I have technology to thank for the attitude adjustment. 

I started using Uber last spring, and the black-car-on-demand, even at the mark-up premium, was something that was absolutely worth it to me. I could see how long I would have to wait and generally had no problems finding an car when I needed one. Did I like the pretentiousness that came with, “Oh, my car is here?” – on some days, yes, because it’s funny; on other days, even I was slightly ashamed to be climbing into a Lincoln Navigator by my lonesome.

The big news this week is that Uber was taking its popular (and hotly contested service) to other forms of hired transportation – and in bringing the ability to hail a cab from its already slick app, it has been promoting it in Boston by offering free rides to anyone who could get a cab through its service since Tuesday.

Perhaps it was a competitive shot, because this week also marked the launch of another app in Boston with the same goal. Hailo also was a way to flag a cab through your mobile phone, and like Uber, would allow you to link a credit card so you didn’t have to pay cash on the spot.

With the free ride opportunity with Uber and a generous offer from Hailo, I attempted to try both services last night to get me back and forth from the South End to an event at the Bell in Hand. I’m emphasizing attempted, because the comparison aspect of this article didn’t actually come to fruition.

My plan was to use Uber to get over to Government Center and Hailo on the way back. However, at 6 pm when I was trying to flag a cab, I got a very quick “no cabs are available”. This one is on me, I should have planned better – of course there would be high demand between the time of day and the free ride offer. For fun, I fired up the Hailo app at that time, too, and was given the same news regarding available cabs. Neither of the services are at fault, just the time of day and my bad planning.

What I can say, though, is the Hailo app didn’t bother me with annoying pop-up promos or confuse my location with a black car or SUV request. I may be a frequent Uberer, but that doesn’t mean I love the application itself.

I gave up because I had to be somewhere at a specific time, so I just hopped the Orange Line and got to my event. When it was all over, I did want to give Hailo a shot just to have the experience to discuss. The app found me and I did get a cab flagged for me  pretty quickly – quoted a 7 minute wait, things did trickle beyond that quote, but I was ok with it. My cabbie called me (thanks Peter!) to tell me he had hit a construction area and needed to reroute, and that’s something that definitely wouldn’t have happened with a dispatch service. From a tech standpoint, I also liked the notifications that rested in my the top bar on the Android version – how close my car was readily accessible from that notification drop down, a win over my Uber experiences where I’ll hover the app to see where they are.

Here’s my feeling after not only this experience, but the other times I’ve used Uber and car hailing via mobile: there are times in Boston when no matter how you do it, the ability to have a car on demand is absolutely killer (see: Government Center, 2 a.m., Saturday). Not needing cash and immediately getting the service you need, those are universal to both of these tools. Both definitely have a permanent spot in my phone.

The smart cabbies and car drivers know this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if those who use one are likely experimenting with both services just as users are. I don’t think that it’s Hailo Cabbies vs Uber Cabbies – my guess would be its the tech savvy ones against those who are going to cause a stir about the technology impact because it changes their business model. As an end-user, I’ll likely go back and forth depending on wait times; the ability to choose and have multiple options only makes transportation around Boston better.

Multiple disclosures here. First, I have a day job in the tech PR space and I have colleagues in my office who work with Hailo. That didn’t influence this post in any way. In the role of being a blogger in Boston, Hailo gave me a credit to test the service for free for the purpose of this article. Transparency FTW.