Uber Changes in NYC – Not Minnesota

The Internet Is forcing improvement on NYC taxi’s, whether they like it or not. Too bad Minnesota is fighting these improvements (Cover Photo:

Anyone who’s visited NYC knows that various forms of public transportation are the norm and that none rank very high on the pleasantness scale. Subways can be quite grimy, and swelteringly hot in the summer, buses are slow, unreliable, uncomfortable, and a pain, and NYC taxi’s can scare the daylights out of even the most hardened taxi rider (and their driving isn’t so pleasant either).

But things are improving. They are slowly rolling out message boards in subway stations showing train arrival times and now have a MetroCard for subway and bus that can be refilled automatically or online. There is also, so I’m told, an effort to make subways brighter and cleaner.

Two things though, are making a much more significant difference.

Citibike Fashion

Photo: Dmitry Gudkov (

Bicycles – Thanks to CitiBike bikeshare and very significant improvements to New York’s bicycling infrastructure, riding a bicycle is becoming a great option for getting around NYC. New York is still well behind most of Continental Europe, but I think it has surpassed London (Bloomberg: 1, Boris: 0) and may be on it’s way to tops in the U.S.

For many trips, riding a bicycle is now easier, faster and more pleasant than alternatives. Well, so long as all of most of the trip is along New York’s miles of segregated cycleway. Streets with only painted bike lanes or no bicycle facilities can be a bit less pleasant and sometimes scarier than a NYC cab ride, though still fast. Few, if any, intersections are adequate, cars and trucks park or drive in painted bike lanes way too often, and parking can be a problem for non-bikeshare folks. Yep, a few problems, but still a great and improving option.

We’ll see if things continue forward under de Blasio. Based on his first few weeks, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

nyc_taxi_3-2Uber Taxi’s – We’ve used GroundLink to arrange cars for trips to and from the airport and occasionally for other transportation. Taxi’s though, are still a fairly unavoidable, and not so pleasant experience. Until now.

The traditional routine is hoof it to the nearest street where you’re likely to see a taxi, hail one down, and hop in. A lot of fun in cold rain or snow. You have no information about the driver you’re entrusting with your life and drivers have little incentive to be pleasant, drive carefully, or not take a very long and more profitable route to your destination.

Uber has added taxi e-hail to their services and changed every bit of that. I expected that the biggest benefit would be the ability to easily e-hail a cab to our location. That proved a great benefit, but as it turns out, perhaps the smallest benefit of all.

While you’re waiting, Uber gives you the name, photo and star-rating of the driver as well as the name of the cab company and cab number[1]. It shows you, in near real-time, the current location of the cab and estimated time of arrival. Very beneficial when it’s cold out or you’re doing some last minute stuff. (This does need some work though since the info was always a little behind reality with cars arriving when Uber showed them still a block or two away.)

Cabbies on Uber are a cut or few above the rest. They’re enterprising enough to sign up with Uber and they know that they’re being rated. Let’s face it, most of us try a bit harder when we know that our performance impacts our wallet. Every driver we hailed with Uber was pleasant and greeted us when they arrived. All but one drove very significantly safer than typical NYC cabbies and that one wasn’t too bad (except compared to other uber taxis). And, the uber taxi’s were generally cleaner than usual.

Uber1I’ve logged a lot of time in NYC taxi’s over three decades of fairly frequent travel there and the difference is quite stark. Enough so that we used taxi’s in some instances we would not have without Uber.

BTW, this is a two way street, cabbies can also rate passengers. So, if you’re obnoxious or tip on the cheap, this may not be the app for you. If you’re a decent sort and tip well then you’ll benefit from a driver knowing that if they do their job well, they’ll be fairly compensated.

And, Uber allows the drivers to more effectively run their own small business. Sign-up is by individual drivers, not companies. Drivers who want to earn more can work a bit harder and benefit from it.

Perhaps the greatest benefit though may be in making the streets of NYC safer. A significant number of pedestrian and bicyclist injuries and fatalities are at the hands of cab drivers. These cab drivers also encourage other drivers to drive faster and more aggressive. NYC police have proven completely impotent in making the streets safer, but Uber seems to be succeeding.

Also, with the traditional model, empty taxi’s spend a lot of time driving around hoping to pick up a fare. With services like Uber, they can park (yep, I know) and wait for an e-hail. This can reduce congestion, fuel use, pollution, and crashes. It can also make charging battery-electric taxi’s more palatable since they can do so without missing out on fare’s.

UberX, UberBlack, and UberSUV are also available throughout the five boroughs of NYC.

Our Not-So-Uber Twin Cities

The Twin Cities needs to catch up. UberTaxi is not available anywhere in the Twin Cities and Minneapolis will not allow UberX (Uber for independent drivers) to operate within city limits (though I think it is available throughout St Paul and all suburbs along with limo services UberBlack and UberSUV).

I recently had dinner with a woman from GreaterMSP who told me that transportation is a key issue for companies who are giving consideration to locating in the Twin Cities. They want good transit, pedestrian, and bicycle facilities for their employees and they want a city where their business visitors will feel safe and welcomed. Services like Uber are a part of this.

Despite their downsides, taxi and limo services are necessary and they should be as pleasant, efficient, and easy to use as possible. Services like Uber are a critical element of this. Rather than stand in the way of such beneficial services, our government should welcome and encourage them.

* Other apps in this arena include GroundLink (excellent, but black cars only), TaxiMagic (awful, seems designed by cabbies for cabbies), MyTaxi (could be great if they fix the bugs), Lyft (good, AirBnB for cars), and Sidecar (another AirBnB for cars).

[1] Uber is a booking service, not a taxi company. Individual licensed drivers sign up for Uber so in the Twin Cities for instance you might get a Suburban (Green & White), Diamond, ABC (Blue & White), Red & White, Yellow, or other.

Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN