Navigating with Ishmael: Can myTaxi Change How We View Taxi Service?

 Photo by Sakeeb Sabakka

Photo by Sakeeb Sabakka

"Call me Ishamel," he said as I slid into the the warm passenger seat. He turned around and flashed a large, white smile at me. I looked down at myTaxi on my phone. Yup, I thought to myself, that's the man they said was coming to pick me up, rated 5 stars and driving in from the east.  He talked to me in a frank and open way as we started to make our way west. "Thirty-three years here, and I'm more of a spectator," said Ishmael from Sierra Leone. No, I wasn't on a ship with a captain looking for a white whale, but finding a taxi in D.C. can be as fruitless a search. Thankfully, Ishmael was an excellent navigator.

As a relatively new smartphone user, I downloaded myTaxi on a whim after a conversation with a roommate. I booked the night before for 6:15 am and myTaxi showed me the driver that was to pick me up in the morning. In the next three days I used the service three more times with three different drivers. I marked Ishmael as my favorite driver on the fifth day. If ever need to book  a ride in advance, I know I will have a good trip with Ishmael.

myTaxi is startup that that connects passengers with drivers. Located in 33 cities across the world, the German-based start-up opened up their first American shop in Washington, D.C. in October. Unlike other large American cities, most D.C. cabs accept cash only. In fact, only this past Wednesday, January 30th did the D.C. Taxicab Commission finally meet to discuss requiring cabs to accept non-cash payment. I am writing about my experience with Ishmael and myTaxi because I am curious about the activity going on around urban transportation and mobile apps. More specifically, I am interested in how the user's experience with an app can change a business transaction. In my example with Ishamael, one good experience led me to become a loyal customer. I'd rather know what I'm getting into than go with a driver who might be texting in traffic or have a cab that reeks of smoke. By making this connection, I have participated in an act of customer loyalty. If I recommend the app to a friend, I'll tell them to give business to Ishmael. He might develop a whole following.

The rating system on the app means that I have the power to influence the choice of other passengers. Was the cab clean? Was the driver rude? Safe? Hopefully one bad rating won't tarnish the reputation of an otherwise fine driver. How might the knowledge of knowing your passengers rate you change your behavior as a taxi driver?

As a user, my only complaint is the lag time between searching for a cab and securing it. On U Street Corridor this past Saturday night, I was curious to see which service would perform better. myTaxi, Taxi Magic, and Uber Taxi each failed to locate a driver for me. Although each service sent an apologetic text message and promised to keep looking, I was still without a ride! At that point, my choices were to go on the street and compete with other tired and cold pedestrians, or summon Uber Black Car and pay whatever rate they asked. Uber Black Car came in 6 minutes, and I paid for a warm spacious ride home. If myTaxi wants happy users, their service will need to expand enough to reliably supply cabs.

Currently, myTaxi is sharing their D.C. office with the competitor of ZipCar, car2go. It will be interesting to see how this relationship grows in the coming months. Will personal taxi drivers become a new norm? How might social circles or groups share drivers? When Congress isn't in session, business is slow in D.C., if drivers download the app, can it save them time and gas on a slow night? How fast will taxi drivers pick up? And how eager will they be to connect and earn the loyalty of customers? Maybe more drivers will start to smile like Ishmael.