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If you don’t have a car or you have a few cocktails under your belt, a taxi used to be pretty much the only game in town.
Then Uber and Lyft came to Orlando, offering anyone with a smartphone and a credit card the ability to hail a ride in a driver’s personal car. The so-called “ride-sharing” services have shaken the taxi industry with fears of going the way of the typewriter and eight-track tape.
But who’s fastest? Cheapest? Who has the best drivers?
To find out, I went undercover to sample UberX, Lyft and a traditional taxicab from Mears Transportation. I summoned each one with their smartphone app — yes, Mears has an app — at the same time on successive days to take me to the same destination.
Then, in the interest of science and fairness, I did it a second time, with a different starting place, destination and time of day. (I would have done it three times, but our presses don’t print dollar bills, people.)
You can see the detailed results in the accompanying chart. But here are a few take-aways:
–You’ll save a little bit of money with Uber and Lyft, but not much. Taxi rates are set by City Hall, but the ride-sharing companies are ignoring city regulations and charging cheaper rates. Tipping is another wrinkle: Uber doesn’t allow it, it’s optional with Lyft, and you’re considered a jerk if you don’t tip in a taxi. Not counting gratuity, Lyft was cheapest in our sample.
–When it comes to ease of payment, it’s a mixed bag. With Uber and Lyft, the fare is automatically charged to the credit card on file with the app, so you just climb out and walk away — but if you don’t have a credit card or PayPal account, you’re out of luck with these cashless cabs. Mears takes cash or credit; a credit-card charge was relatively fast but still required swiping, signing and waiting for a receipt.
–I was surprised by how long I had to wait for a Mears taxi to show up — nearly 27 minutes in one test. Unlike Uber and Lyft, Mears’ app doesn’t estimate your wait time. But while sitting on Park Avenue in Winter Park, I could see the cab’s disheartening location on the app: miles away in Longwood. When it came to speed, Lyft and Uber left Mears in the dust.
–There wasn’t a big difference in vehicle comfort and quality. All were clean, late-model cars. Despite the stereotype for taxis, Mears’ cabs were clean and comfortable. All of the drivers were pleasant enough, but Mears’ drivers were the friendliest and most engaging. Uber encourages its drivers to offer bottled water to their passengers, but that didn’t happen. Likewise, Lyft wants its drivers to act like your pal by giving you a fist bump; that happened with one driver but not the other.
–At least for now, Uber and Lyft are operating illegally within the city limits of Orlando and at the airport, because City Hall considers them no different from taxis that must pay for vehicle and driver permits, undergo police background checks and pay airport-access fees. Let your conscience be your guide.
We asked each company for a response. Here’s what they had to say:
–Mears spokesman Roger Chapin: “We are required to serve everyone, not just those with smartphones and credit cards. While we offer an app, we know that 46 percent of Orlando residents don’t own both a smartphone and a credit card, and we don’t have the luxury of only focusing on 54 percent of the population, nor do we think policymakers should turn their backs on the 46 percent who rely on taxi service as public necessity.”
–Uber spokeswoman Taylor Bennett: “Everyone loves Uber. We’re the safest, most reliable and affordable ride on the road.”
–Lyft spokeswoman Katie Dally: “Since launching at the end of July, we have seen a great response not only from would-be passengers but also from our new community of drivers … . It’s very exciting to see our Orlando market grow so quickly.”