These last few months I have been traveling a lot for business and one of the universals of business travel is that if you stay in a big hotel in the downtown of a big city, there will always be cabs swarming around. Typically they’ll be lining up in the morning outside the hotel waiting for the army of business travelers going about their business in the city. So when I booked my trip to Pittsburgh PA in April of this year, I decided that since I was staying downtown and since the office I was visiting was a mere 15 minutes away from the hotel, I would not need to rent a car.
Arriving in Pittsburgh in the evening, I took a cab from the airport, went to bed and didn’t get up until the next morning when I got ready to go to visit my client.
I was there to do training, and typically on the first day of training I arrive an hour early just to make sure all the details are ironed out: is there a projector in the room? Do I have network access? Can I get IN the training room? So on this day, I was done with breakfast by 7:30 so as to be onsite by 8. I stopped by the hotel concierge and asked for a cab. A few minutes later, I went out the front door, but to my chagrin and surprise, there was no cab waiting. Glancing quickly up and down the street, I suddenly noticed that there were no cabs cruising the street (maybe this is just a side street, I mused). So I went to the corner, and to my horror found that there were no cabs to be seen in any direction.
Feeling like I had stepped into some alternate universe, I returned to the concierge and asked him,
“Say, what is the ETA for that cab?”
“Just a minute…” he answered.
The concierge called the cab company and after about 5 minutes of phone-tree navigation reported that he did not know the ETA, but that the cabbie was on the way. Now I knew I had fallen into an alternate parallel universe! This must be some sort of cab-crazy day here in Pittsburgh, I thought. No cabs on the street, no eta…there must be a Star Trek convention in town or something, I thought.
Now it was nearing 8:00AM. I knew I wouldn’t be onsite by 8, as I had hoped, so I sent of an email to my client telling them that I would arrive in time to start the training at 9:00. 8:10 came and went and still no cab. At 8:15 the cab pulls up (remember, I had called for this cab at 7:30am). I jump in and give the address.
“Where’s that?” asks the cabbie.
“WHERE’s THAT!?!?,” I scream (in my head). This can’t be a real cab driver. It must be her first day, or she’s escaped from prison, killed my real cab driver, and now she’s going to kill me! How can you be a cab driver and say “Where’s that”? Don’t they beat that question out of you in Cab Driver Boot Camp?
“I don’t know….” I replied. No matter how little the cabbie knows, I was sure to know less about where things are in Pittsburgh. She at least had gotten to the hotel, even if it took 40 minutes. I was not about to be the one who lead us to the wrong side of town.
The cab driver apparently had GPS and was able to get me where I was going in about 15 minutes. And figuring that I would have to go through this same deal the next day I asked her for a business card so I could call directly and early in the morning. She gave me a company card and wrote her number on it as well. Thanking her, I paid the fare (including a nice tip), got out of the car and went in to see my client.
As we were getting ready for class to start, I made small talk with the students and told them about my taxi nightmare to which several students replied, “Oh, we’ve got Uber and Lyft here in Pittsburgh now.” I had heard of these companies, but never really felt inclined to use them because a) I rarely take cabs, b) when I do I am in a strange city, and c) it just seemed kind of strange to get in an unmarked car with someone I had never met.
The training day went well. Afterwards I had dinner with my client, who then dropped me off at the hotel. I checked out both Lyft and Uber and found out that Lyft only lets you create an account using Facebook, which is an immediate showstopper for me (see my previous post, Goodbye, Facebook). So, I signed up with Uber.
I still wasn’t planning on using Uber. The idea of taking a ride with a complete stranger just seemed to weird for me. I’m generally pretty comfortable with weirdness, but this was way out of my comfort zone. But then, aren’t you getting in a car with a complete stranger when you take a cab? Yes, but….isn’t a cab just…..safer? Logic was no help here. My mind drifted back to a recent trip to Chicago where on the way home from the airport (in a cab), I heard a POP and the cabbie ducked his head saying ‘the guy going the other way is shooting out of his car!’ Of course, this had nothing to do with my cab, or the driver, but it reminded me that there there are so many dangers out there that we are not even aware of…
The next morning, thinking I had figured out how to deal with Pittsburg taxis, I called my driver from the previous day at 7:20, allowing them 1 hour and 40 minutes for her or her proxy to get to my hotel and then get me to the office by 9:00AM.
Wrong number. Oops. Should I have left a bigger tip?
So, I called the cab company. After a few minutes of hand-to-hand combat with their phone system I reached a live person.
“I’m at <hotel/> and I need to get to <destination/>. How soon could I get a cab?”
“Well, we can’t give you a time when he’ll be there…”
“So how would I know when to expect him?”
“Hmmm, we’ll have him call you when he’s on his way.”
“Ok,” I said. I gave them my cell number, ate my breakfast, and waited.
At about 8:00AM I pulled out my phone and launched the Uber app. It was really cool. It knew immediately where I was, showing my current location on the map as the pickup location. This normally would not be impressive on an iPhone, but given the inability of the cab company to do half as much, I found this very encouraging. Even better was the fact that as I zoomed out just a little, the app showed little black cars on the map in my vicinity with how far away each one was. The nearest car was 8 minutes away (how’s THAT for an ETA)!
Still, I was reluctant to dive into the pool. I decided to give the cab driver a few more minutes to let me know he was on his way. Now it was 8:15. Dipping my toe in once more, I checked Uber. The little black cars were all moving around on my map of Pittsburgh, and the nearest one was still just minutes away. Still, I wasn’t quite ready.
At 8:30, I still hadn’t received a call from the cabbie or the cab company so I took the plunge. I entered my destination for a fare quote and clicked the ‘Request’ button. Uber began immediately to give me updates:
Your Uber is 5 minutes away…
4… 3… 2… 1…. Your Uber has arrived!
The app had a picture of the driver, the make and model of the car, and the license plate number of the car that pulled up in front of my hotel at exactly that moment. I got in the car, and the driver took me straight to my destination. We chatted on the way and I learned that my driver was an out of work banker who drives for Uber whenever he does not have temp jobs. I also learned that Uber drivers have to have a late model car in very good mechanical condition, it takes about two weeks for Uber to complete background checks on prospective drivers, and the drivers and their cars are insured by Uber when they are carrying passengers.
Since then, I have used Uber on several occasions, most recently to get back to my hotel in Boston from the suburbs. In every case, the car was clean, and the driver on time, courteous, and friendly. In the future, I think Uber will be my ride of choice wherever I go.
I tell you all of this because tomorrow, the Pennsylvania PUC is considering whether to allow Uber to operate despite a July 1 cease-and-desist order from two administrative law judges.
The people of Pittsburgh can’t get a cab to save their life and so Uber and Lyft come in to fill the gap, making substantial investments and taking on risk, when Judge Mary D. Long and Jeffery A. Watson say ‘no’.
So if you, like me think there should be more options for transportation-starved Pittsburghians, take the following two actions:
- Sign up with Uber and use my promo code: wjja8. You’ll get your first ride free, and if you use Uber again, I get a free ride </shamelessSelfPromotion>.
- Call or email one of the PUC commissioners below and tell them they should let Uber operate as they have been.
- Chairman Robert Powelson 717-787-4301
- Vice Chairman John Coleman 717-772-0692
- Commissioner Pamela Witmer 717-783-1763
- Commissioner Gladys Brown 717-787-1031
- Commissioner James Cawley 717-783-1197
- Executive Director Jan Freeman 717-787-1035
By the way, I still have not gotten that call from the cabbie in Pittsburgh.