Ground zero in the local war between traditional cab companies and ride-sharing firms like Uber and Lyft is located in the belly of an inconspicuous, low-slung building off Hwy. 169 in New Hope.
This is the technological heart of Taxi Services Inc., the parent company of Airport Taxi, Town Taxi and Yellow Cab — a $40 million transportation firm whose roots date to the early 1900s. A circle of computer screens in the command center bears a palette of orange, purple and green dots — each representing a taxicab, in motion or at rest.
The Twin Cities’ taxi industry was profoundly changed by the formal entry in recent years of the smartphone-app-based ride-matching services, UberX and Lyft. And Steve Pint, Taxi Services’ president and CEO, is determined to win the war.
Two years ago, Pint’s firm launched free iPhone and Android smartphone apps called iHail, which permit users to book a cab in two taps on their phone. The app determines the customer’s GPS location and dispatches the closest cab. There’s a price estimator, and customers receive notifications via phone as their taxi approaches.
“I want iHail to become a verb, just like Uber,” Pint declares.
Taxi Services’ iHail app isn’t the only one available in the Twin Cities. Curb (formerly Taxi Magic) has been around since 2009 as smartphone technology took hold among the masses. Curb, which is available in 60 cities, includes Suburban, Green & White Taxi, Blue & White Taxi and 10/10 Taxi MN in its local fleet.
But Taxi Services dominates the Twin Cities market, with some 500 cabs providing 1.3 million rides a year. Since the free iHail app’s launch in August 2013, more than 40,000 smartphone users have downloaded it.
(For those who prefer to call or text a cab, or book one online, those options still exist, too.)
In the next six months, iHail plans to expand to other cities in a partnership with dozens of cab companies nationwide. So people in Minneapolis could call a cab using their iHail apps while visiting Denver, Omaha, Houston and elsewhere.
Pint is also working on deals to make the app available in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. In a year, he hopes 30 to 40 cities in North America will be served by the iHail app.
“It makes sense that we share the technology,” he said.
Other cab and tech firms have similar designs for global domination in the transportation marketplace, said John Boit, spokesman of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association.
“This is what customers want. This is the way they want to connect with their rides,” he said.
Cab companies worldwide are also facing competitive pressure from ride-sharing firms like Uber and Lyft, where the apps connect riders with private citizens who drive them to their destinations.
Minneapolis among the first
Minneapolis was one of the first cities nationwide to legalize these “transportation network companies.” In some cities, like Paris, cabbies have rioted to thwart Uber’s entry, but the process in Minneapolis and St. Paul was relatively peaceful in comparison.
A year after Minneapolis adopted new rules for ride-sharing companies, Grant Wilson, the city’s manager of licenses and consumer services, said he is pleased with the result. “It’s been a success so far,” he said. “The ordinance we have is really good.”
So far, only UberX — a budget version where drivers provide their own cars — and Lyft have filed for licenses in Minneapolis, Wilson said. Under the year-old ordinance, each transportation network company (TNC) must pay a $35,000 annual fee and contribute an additional $10,000 to promote wheelchair-accessible taxis in the city. (St. Paul adopted its regulations, which are similar to those in Minneapolis, last December.)
The companies must complete background checks of drivers, train and insure them, and make sure their vehicles pass inspection. The city, in turn, audits the services to make sure they’re in compliance.
What fare is fair?
Pint is not a fan of the TNC regulations — “they are self-regulated, while we are closely regulated,” he said. “We’re both providing for-hire transportation, and [Uber and Lyft] are effectively taxi companies and yet they’re regulated differently.”
It’s unclear how many drivers Uber and Lyft deploy in the Twin Cities. When asked, Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson said in an e-mail, “Residents in Minneapolis have enthusiastically embraced Lyft’s safe, affordable rides and we’re looking forward to seeing ride sharing continue to grow and thrive in the city.” Uber did not respond to a request for comment.
One challenge involves luring smartphone-toting millennials to hail cabs, when they may be more inclined to indulge in the sharing economy.
In that vein, iHail markets directly to its potential customer base — such as giving poker chips bearing cab discounts to bartenders who distribute them to customers who have had a few too many cocktails. And, at the Basilica Block Party in July, while the bands Wilco and Weezer performed, iHail drink koozies were distributed to sun-drenched fans. It’s Pint’s hope that the spongy beer jackets will serve as a hazy reminder that a cab ride is just a few taps away on one’s phone.
“Technology makes us very, very, very efficient,” Pint said.