24 December 2013

Car Stuff: Need a Ride?

Have you heard of Uber? If you live in or near a city of moderately large size, there's a decent chance Uber is operating there. It's a car service that lets you summon a ride by using a smartphone app (or by text message for those with regular cell phones). You set up an account and provide your credit card information, so that when you use the service no cash changes hands; the rides are billed to your credit card, and the gratuity is included in the fare.

I am not a frequent taxi user, but as someone who doesn't drive, there are times when I need another option for getting home (or to a destination other than home) besides the T. When Uber first came to Boston it operated as a "black car" service (think prosperous business types with expense accounts), but later they began offering a lower-cost option called UberX that is priced competitively with taxis. UberX drivers use regular cars, which are still way nicer and more comfortable than most cabs. (As a bonus, UberX fares were lowered a couple of months ago, making it likely that an UberX ride will now be cheaper than a cab ride.)

I first used the service in July when I needed to go to a medical appointment in Watertown and the Mrs. was not available to drive me. I could have gotten there via the T, but it would have taken an excessive amount of time and I didn't feel like setting out from home two hours ahead of the scheduled visit. I had a code for a discount on the first ride so I signed up and summoned my driver via the app.

For me, one of the more interesting things about using Uber is getting to ride in a variety of cars. When your ride is confirmed, the Uber app shows you the driver's name and what type of car they are driving. I suppose the intent is to give you an idea of what car you should be watching for, and I imagine this information is lost on many people who don't pay attention to cars or have a particular interest in them, but for me it's been a new, fun surprise each time.

I've used the service a total of five times so far, and each time I've ridden in a different type of car. My first ride was in a Volkswagen Passat, not the version currently on sale but the older one, which was still quite comfortable. (The Mrs. ended up having a current Passat as a rental in September while her car was being repaired, so I've been in one of those too.) Next was a Dodge Avenger, which is kind of generic and ugly and plasticky inside, definitely not a car that's going to impress anyone but probably a perfect car for this sort of situation.

My next ride was in a Jeep Grand Cherokee, but one that had been in use for a while. By my estimate it was about ten years old, and I was a little surprised that Uber would let a driver use a car of that age, but it got me home. In October I needed to get home from downtown on a Saturday afternoon, and the bus to our house runs only every 30 minutes on Saturdays so I decided to summon an UberX ride. This time my driver was piloting a nearly new Toyota Venza, which would be called a Camry wagon if Americans still cared about station wagons.

A couple of Mondays ago I had another medical thing, this time in Davis Square. That's a little less than 3.5 miles from our house, but getting there is convoluted. I have to allow at least an hour of transit time, plus whatever I have to add on to allow for the less than frequent bus where we live. It was raining steadily that morning, and I didn't get ready as quickly as I should have, so I ended up missing the bus I had intended to catch. UberX was the solution; my ride was a Ford Fusion, again the previous generation but immaculately kept and much nicer than the Dodge. The ride took all of 11 minutes, even in the rain. (After each trip you receive an emailed receipt with the distance traveled, time, and total charge.)

I have to make one observation about the drivers: many of them use GPS, which makes complete sense. But some of them lean on it a little too heavily, in my opinion. On my last trip I told the driver I was going to Davis Square. This is a prominent location, and anyone who lives around here and drives a car should have some idea of how to get there. The driver needed a street address to input the destination and start getting directions. I knew the name of the street but not the number, so I had to look it up on my phone. Then he said the GPS couldn't locate that street, but I think he may have mistyped it because on the second try it started telling him where to go. On some of my other rides the drivers were fine with me giving them verbal directions, like you would with a taxi driver.

There are always tradeoffs, and I find UberX to be highly preferable to a dirty, ancient cab with a worn-out suspension, where you have to ask the driver to turn on the air conditioning. In the future I will have a physical address ready in case a driver asks me for it.

(By the way, this is not a sponsored post, nor is it an endorsement. Other than the initial discount code, I've paid for my Uber rides with my own money. I'm sharing my experiences so that others can decide if Uber is something they are interested in using.)

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