It’s Christmas. You might have noticed.
If the fact that every elevator is playing a Muzak version of Jingle Bells didn’t give it away, you were probably clued in by the fact that every workplace in South Australia is holding a Christmas Party. Many of them, evidently, at the same time.
So a few days back, it transpired that my wife and I both had separate plans on the same evening.
With small kids, this posed some logistical challenges, but it all seemed to be going swimmingly.
Babysitters were wrangled, the children were nestled snug in their beds (well, they weren’t, but it was the aforementioned babysitters’ problem) and the taxi was pre-booked for 7pm.
A few minutes past 7, it occurred to me it might be wise to ring and check on my allotted cab’s whereabouts.
My first hint that things had gone somewhat awry was when it turned out that I didn’t have an allotted cab.
“We’re very busy,” I was helpfully assured.
I pointed out that this was, in fact, why I had pre-booked, which didn’t seem to get me anywhere.
Things went somewhat more awry when my wife ambled out to apologise for keeping the taxi waiting only to discover that the opposite had occurred, albeit sans apology.
Unconvinced that I had made a compelling case, she called the taxi company back and made a few subtle points about service and so forth, and was eventually mollified on being told that a driver had “accepted” our booking and was exactly 2.5 kilometres away.
After about 10 minutes, however, the promised driver was nowhere to be seen. Even allowing for traffic gridlock (which there wasn’t), surely the maths didn’t stack up here… two and a half kilometres at roughly 60kph, throw in the odd red light, you’d still think five minutes or so would be ample time.
But as it turned out the guy who accepted our booking had subsequently changed his mind and picked up some random dude who hailed him instead, so we had to wait for someone else.
Which meant we were back to square one.
And here’s the thing. Ultimately, punters will just gravitate to whichever service they can ring up to book a driver who arrives at the appointed time. It’s a radical thought, I know.
My wife politely conveyed her thoughts on all this to the operator (don’t make her angry, you wouldn’t like her when she’s angry) and we settled in to wait for our driver, who turned out to be a pretty nice guy except for the bit when he almost killed us all in a head-on collision by running a red light while trying to check directions.
All in all, we were about half an hour late, so I don’t mean to sound hard done by.
I get that this is a First World Problem.
And maybe I’m just naïve. I had foolishly assumed that by ringing ahead to make a booking, I had somehow “reserved” a taxi for a particular time. But as our friendly/potentially lethal driver patiently explained, the booking is not actually sent out until about five minutes before the appointed time. So you’re actually no better off than you would be if you waited until you were ready to leave before ordering a cab.
Which is generally fine. More often than not when I order a cab it arrives pretty promptly. And yes, you can probably expect some competing demand on a Friday evening in December.
The thing is, whether it arrives on time or not, and whether the driver almost kills me or not, I’ll still order the same service because I’m used to it.
I’m used to getting a text message saying my taxi is approaching and then waiting a further five minutes for it to turn up.
I’m used to those damn automated booking prompts that never ever work, and on a good day I can even see a perverse humour in the inevitable exchange:
“If this is your pick-up address, say ‘yes’.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.”
As of midnight, Uber X was legalised in New South Wales, despite concerted lobbying by the taxi industry.
Nonetheless, cabbies’ operating costs will be significantly reduced and a bunch of red tape regulations repealed by way of compensation.
And here’s the thing. Ultimately, punters will just gravitate to whichever service they can ring up to book a driver who arrives at the appointed time.
It’s a radical thought, I know.
Our helpful/accident prone driver informed us that his company actually had the most efficient booking system in the state, which suggests we’ve collectively come to accept mediocrity because there’s no alternative.
Uber has made clear its frustration with the SA Government for evidently not immediately clutching the upstart interloper to its proverbial bosom. That’s its prerogative, but the Government is within its rights to do its due diligence. The thing is though, whatever else Uber would do in SA, it would force the taxi industry to lift its game.
That’s what competition does.
But I’m guessing the Weatherill Government won’t be following NSW’s lead in giving festive revelers an early Christmas present, so in the meantime, here’s my considered advice.
Next time you ring and book a cab that you’d like to arrive on time, tell them you want to go to the airport.
Then when the driver pulls up, politely explain that you’re not really going to the airport but you didn’t want to risk your reservation being lost in the glut of low priorities.
They might take umbrage and drive off, but they’re just as likely to give an empathetic nod and accept your fare.
After all, it’s only a little white lie. Like the one where they tell you they’ll arrive on time.
Tom Richardson is a senior journalist at InDaily.
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