Taxi Companies Feel a Comeback Is Coming as Uber Faces Negative Publicity

SEATTLE (The Seattle Times/TNS) -

The negative news raining down on ridesharing company Uber as Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles County sue the company puts a smile on the face of Seattle Yellow Cab General Manager Amin Shifow.

Seattle taxi-industry revenue took a 40 percent dive during the first year the San Francisco-based company, along with competitors Lyft and Sidecar, used instantly popular smartphone apps to dispatch hundreds of unlimited and unregulated ride services.

So he doesn’t mind seeing the startup, which a recent round of funding has valued at more than $40 billion, squirm a little. But Shifow is also smiling because he thinks the backlash against Uber is happening at just the right time.

Yellow Cab’s 2-month-old ride-request app — a sleeker upgrade from the app it rushed to release about a year ago — is humming along without glitches, Shifow said. And, he says, thanks to a switch to GPS-dictated driver assignments, average response times within the city have almost been cut in half.

Advertising for the service is showing up on cabs. “Tap the App,” the signs read.

The free application for iPhone and Android phones incorporates features long available on Uber, Lyft and Sidecar apps: It automatically locates where a passenger is requesting a ride from, allows passengers to track on a map how close their driver is to arriving and soon will allow riders to pay through the app, as well. He said San Francisco taxi customers are about to get the same service to pay their fares. Other ride services, such as Eastside for Hire, have been using phone-dispatching apps such as Curb, which has all of those features, for more than a year now.

In other words, the differences between taxis and services like UberX — Uber’s nonluxury passenger service — are diminishing, and Shifow wants to see some of the regulatory differences between them narrow, as well.

Even as he calls his competitors “bullies,” Shifow admits Seattle Yellow Cab wouldn’t be resurrecting itself with much-needed upgrades had such app-based ride services as Uber and Lyft not come to town in spring 2013.

He says Yellow Cab’s lack of motivation to modernize itself was not a money problem — it was a competition problem.

“In all honesty, the taxi industry was stagnant for a while: They had it good, there was no competition, and when you have no competition, there’s nothing for you to worry about,” said Shifow. “But the competition came in at the same time, and it came in hard with unlicensed, unlimited cabs all of a sudden hitting the road — that was tough.”