I heard about the car service Uber when it launched in New York in 2011; friends and acquaintances who were early adopters described the service as addictive, and I could see why–the appeal of having your own non-surly driver who wouldn’t bitch or sigh or raise an eyebrow if asked to chauffeur you across the Queensboro Bridge, for starters. A company rep had given me a promo code at a trade show and I downloaded the app, but didn’t even make a trip. Uber’s rates didn’t seem competitive compared to taxis, which I avoided anyway, preferring the subway, Citi Bike, or my own two feet to get around the city.
Fast-forward to last month, when I was chatting with my friend Cristina about my upcoming trip to Mexico City. Did I know Uber had launched in the capital last year and that it was fabulous? No, I had missed the news and I remained dubious, despite her enthusiastic endorsement. Still, I downloaded the app again (since I’d deleted it, having decided I’d never use it) and found myself curious enough to try it out when I landed at the airport a couple weeks ago.
I jumped on the airport’s WiFi network (Infinitum has a growing number of WiFi hotspots around the capital and you can “prueba el servicio–“try the service”– for free once a day.) and hailed my Uber car. It arrived in about two minutes, as the app informed me it would, and I knew the driver’s name, what he would look like, the make and model of his car, and his license plate number… all before he pulled up. Already, I was impressed; one of the persistent problems (and some would say, dangers) of taking a taxi in Mexico City is knowing whether a driver and his or her car are legit, much less knowing who he/she is. Uber eliminated that problem entirely, and right away, I could see the numerous advantages that presented to both the passenger and the driver.
Before we pulled away from the terminal, the driver asked me if I wanted a bottle of water and whether I needed to charge my phone. I said “yes” to both, and he produced one of several chargers, including one that fit my iPhone. He pointed out the newspapers in the seat pocket in front of me, noting that they were mine to enjoy, should I want them… and I did.
He asked where I was going and I told him; he punched the destination into an iPhone and away we went. This was novel for Mexico City, too; being such a gigantic metropolis, it’s very common for drivers to get lost or to ask the passenger for directions or–this has happened to me several times in Mexico City–to simply give up after trying to find a destination, depositing the passenger at a curb with a mumbled apology and a “Suerte!”
The car was gleaming, inside and out, and still had that new car smell, and the driver was spiffy, too, dressed in a suit. No 5-o’clock shadow on his face, his hair slicked back… what WAS this? It was different and, frankly, I liked it.
I explained to the driver that I’m a writer and asked if I could interview him about his experience with Uber. He was obliging and I turned on my recorder, letting him chat away about how much he loves driving for Uber. A former taxi driver, he feels more professional and more safe: “We never have to exchange cash,” he says, “and you know that here, someone will kill a taxi driver for a hundred pesos” [about $7.50 at the current exchange rate]. Uber stores the passenger’s credit or debit card information and calculates the charge at the end of every trip. The charge automatically processes by the card company and Uber emails the passenger a receipt. Two more problems eliminated: that of making change (Mexican taxi drivers rarely have the change to break bills, even ones that a visitor might consider small, like 100 pesos) and that of getting a receipt (drivers of street hail taxis in Mexico City rarely have receipts).
I used Uber at least six more times during my four days in Mexico City and every trip was exceptional. The drivers were professional, the cars were in perfect condition, and the trips went off without a hitch. The rates were generally competitive with taxi fares, and for what I was getting, I didn’t mind when they exceeded what a typical trip might cost (during times of high demand, rates are adjusted–upward, of course–for service).
Did I miss the street hail taxis of yore? Of course, I did… but only in the way that your dad misses the days of walking uphill to school in the snow, both ways. Which is to say that I missed the idea and the image of the street hail taxi–especially the green and white Beetle taxis that hurtled down the streets when I lived in Mexico City–but I didn’t actually miss the experience of the street hail taxi.
Fresh from my fantastic experiences with Uber in Mexico City, I returned to New York, more eager to test the service here. I still expected the rates to be somewhat higher than taxis, so when I landed at JFK, I requested an Uber and selected the option to calculate the projected trip cost. The price was competitive and so I confirmed my request… but the car was at least 16 minutes away. Grr. The taxi line was long, but I’d wait it out. Why taxi drivers are complaining about Uber when there still seem to be incredibly long lines at both area airports is beyond me.
A couple days later, headed back to the airport again–LGA, this time–I requested Uber again. A female driver pulled up and my family and I tumbled into the back seat. The level of professionalism and polish I’d enjoyed in Mexico City just wasn’t there. The front passenger seat was filled with kid detritus; she had obviously just dropped her kid off at school. There was no bottled water, no phone chargers, none of the extras that made the value of the trip in Mexico City worth every peso.
Eager to convince my skeptical husband that Uber really was worth the money, I requested another Uber at the airport in Miami. This driver arrived with a towel stretched across the back seat. “Um, I feel pretty uncomfortable,” Francisco whispered to me, pointing out that while I felt my experience in Mexico City had been highly professional, in the U.S., our experiences so far had felt like we were being picked up by a friend of a friend: someone who was pleasant enough, but who wasn’t really making a tremendous effort to provide an experience worth paying for.
Because I needed to pay with a credit card and because I needed receipts for work, I continued using Uber during our Miami trip, making at least eight trips over the course of two days. None was exceptional and two drivers declined to give me a ride once they showed up, citing that since I have children, they would need car seats. One driver called en route to say that traffic was so slow he suggested I just cancel my car request and walk back to my hotel, which I did (and was charged a $5 cancellation fee). The cars in the Miami pool were of varying quality. One Crown Vic looked like it just rolled off the back lot of a police precinct. On more than one occasion drivers, though equipped with iPhones just as in Mexico City, didn’t come to the correct pick-up point or seemed confused about the correct drop-off point, even though I’d entered both accurately into the app. It was a good thing the driver who thought I was going to Fort Lauderdale double checked with me verbally before he actually drove there.
So will I use Uber again? If I’m in Mexico City, absolutely. In New York City? Only when I’m in a pinch that a taxi can’t get me out of. In Miami? Next time, I’ll rent my own car.
Have you tried Uber? Where was it and how was your experience?