Is Uber really a bargain?

Talking Transportation is a bi-weekly column written by Jim Cameron.

Talking Transportation is a bi-weekly column written by Jim Cameron.

In the almost two years since Uber rolled into Connecticut, the state’s car/taxi service business has been rocked to its core. But is Uber competing on the same level as taxis and car service companies? Of course not, which is why it’s so successful.

I spoke with Uber’s Connecticut manager, Matt Powers, and Drivers Unlimited (a Darien car and limo company) owner Randy Klein to try to get an objective comparison of the services. (Full disclosure: I have been a customer of both firms.)

While Uber does offer a “black car” (premium) service, my comparisons are with its more popular Uber X service … private cars driven by non-chauffeurs, 7,000 of whom have signed up as drivers in Connecticut, according to Powers.

 

Vehicles: Car services opt for Lincoln Town Cars and SUVs. Uber X just requires that drivers have a four-door car, less than 10 years old, with a trunk big enough to carry a wheelchair.

 

Maintenance: Klein owns and maintains his own fleet, inspecting all cars weekly. Uber relies on its X drivers to do upkeep.

 

Driver screening: Klein does his own background checks on top of the DMV screening required for a CDL (commercial driver’s license). Uber said it does “rigorous” screening of drivers, including terrorist watch lists, but requires only a regular driver’s license. Klein’s firm also does random drug testing of his drivers.

 

Insurance: Klein has coverage of up to $1.5 million for every driver. Uber relies on the individual driver’s personal insurance but layers a $1 million policy on top when they are driving Uber customers.

 

Ratings: Uber asks drivers and passengers to rate each other after every trip. Klein asks passengers to rate drivers but said it’s unfair to allow drivers to rate customers. “We’re in a service business,” he said.

 

Booking: Klein said most of his reservations are made two to three weeks in advance. Uber doesn’t do advance bookings, though in personal experience I’ve never had to wait more than 10 minutes for a car.

 

Fares: Though not an apples-to-apples comparison, an average car service ride from Darien to LaGuardia Airport is anywhere from $130 to $180, one-way. Uber’s quote for an X car is about $75.

 

Surge pricing: When demand is highest, Uber adds a surcharge to fare quotes, sometimes doubling the fare. Klein said his rates are the same 24/7.

 

If you have problems: Klein said his office can be reached anytime by phone, toll-free. Uber’s website offers a template to file complaints online.

So, is Uber really a bargain? Let me answer with a hotel analogy. Sometimes I love staying at the Ritz Carlton with its plush rooms and fabulous service. Other times, a Motel 6 or LaQuinta is fine, though there’s always the risk of a “surprise.”

I see car services the same way. With a plush Lincoln SUV and chauffeur you get what you pay for. But sometimes all you want is to get from home to the airport and an Uber X is just fine … and a lot cheaper!

 

 

Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and a member of the Darien RTM. The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at [email protected]. For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com.

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