This week I have been in Barcelona for work and decided to do a little research, albeit extremely unscientific. Because of a corporate travel screwup I happened to get placed in a hotel more than 5 miles from the venue, with no real public transportation option (not that didn’t take over an hour commute each way, at least).
I happened to take a taxi from the airport to the hotel, dropping off a couple of friends who were on the same flight as I was, but staying at a different hotel. The driver then proceeded to take me to my hotel, driving nearly all the way back to the airport to drop me off. Needless to say, I felt like the piss had been taken in a big way.
As a result, I decided to give Uber a try again (an earlier experience in San Francisco hadn’t been quite so pleasant) and see if I could get better service. The results, as they say, were mixed.
In Barcelona, anyway, available taxis are everywhere. I never had to wait more than a minute (and that’s a generous overestimation) to find one on my way, and unlike London (*cough* cough) they actually will bother to cross a lane or turn around to pick you up.
Uber’s cars are somewhat more infrequent (more on this below), and often times the GPS didn’t update accurately. Part of Uber’s problem with punctuality, however, came from a heavy reliance of drivers on GPS. It’s obvious that they don’t know the city nearly as well as taxi drivers, and it shows by their inability to find basic street addresses. Barcelona streets are not well lit, aside from the main tourist thoroughfares, and numbers are difficult to find unless you understand the city well enough. The Uber drivers evidently do not.
Hands down the level of accountability is highest for Uber. In addition to the fiasco on the drive from the airport, I was never convinced that the taxi drivers were taking me the most efficient route.
Let me explain – Barcelona is full of roads that are, effectively, one-way streets. Sometimes they happen to be placed very close together, parallel, with a walking section in the middle (e.g., La Rambla). Even so, the routes they took to and from the convention center were so convoluted that my maps program on my phone looked like a trace of an Etch-a-sketch. Even taking into account the “avoiding traffic” excuse
Uber, on the other hand, almost always took the same route, and almost always was the same price (to a difference of a few cents, in fact). I never got the impression that they were trying to pad the fare at all, and I have a feeling that part of it is because their drive is tracked the entire way.
This one was a close call.
Barcelona’s taxi drivers may be easy to find, but even they had issues trying to find certain locations. I know that my hotel was a bit of the ways from the tourist center, but it was still a Hilton. You would think that taxis would come to know the major hotels in the city (at least I would, but perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the encyclopedic knowledge of London Black cabs).
For the most part, taxis were pretty good about knowing the city and being able to be rather reliable both about finding a decent route to get to where I wanted to go and finding the actual destination.
Uber’s cars, on the other hand, were extremely iffy. More than one car didn’t have a clue how to find me, and one driver simply gave up (after forcing me to wait for 17 minutes as he drove from the center of the city). Despite having modern GPS systems and texting them to look for “the man with a hat,” in both English and an attempt at Spanish, nearly every driver had major problems finding my location – even to my hotel.
One Uber driver got so lost it took him an hour to drive from La Rambla to my hotel, which was only 4 miles away. He got so frustrated that I was genuinely concerned he was going to give up, kick me out of the car, and force me to fend for myself at midnight. He didn’t, thankfully, but he was making noises that just didn’t sound like it bode well for me. The sonofabitch still charged me anyway, too.
Barcelona’s taxis are extremely aggressive, but that’s also par for the course for being in a car in Barcelona. Coming from the US (even Boston), it can be quite a bit overwhelming as about the only two rules that people follow are “stop” and “don’t hit people in the crosswalk.” Anything else appears to be fair game.
Taxi drivers in general are a level beyond the norm, though. There was more than one occasion when I thought the driver was playing chicken with a bus. In one case, two busses.
The Uber drivers also scared the hell out of me, but for a different reason. At times it seems that they are so clueless that they will stop – in the middle of the lane – and look at their phone to see where they are supposed to be going, fiddle with the Uber app, or some other distraction (e.g., radio). There is a distinct lack of professionalism-as-drivers that the Uber rides had.
Winner: Tie (and not in a good way)
Ease of Payment/Cost:
Many (most?) of the taxis in Barcelona still only take cash – and the rides can be very expensive, not to mention unpredictable. The same journey between my hotel and the conference varied as much as 50%.
When credit cards are accepted, the taxi drivers have no qualms about telling you that American Express (my company’s preferred expense tracking system) was not welcome. Could have left home without it. I will have a lot of personal expenses to track when I return, which means an extra burden for me with the corporate expense system.
Uber, on the other hand, is directly connected to my expense system and I can even quote the fare if I want to. As I noted above, the consistency in pricing was remarkable. The variance between the hotel and the conference center was less than 1%, by way of comparison. Everything is pre-programmed, and a receipt is emailed to me immediately upon completion of the trip. From the sake of convenience, there really is no comparison.
Again, without question, the winner here is Uber. Not all of the cars are “black cars,” but even some of the “lower quality” models were in excellent condition, roomy, and very comfortable and quiet. The taxis, on the other hand, often looked (and smelled) like renovated porn theatres from the 1970s, despite often being late-model Prii.
Originally I had intended to walk back and forth between the convention center, as when I booked the hotel the corporate site said it was only “.24 miles away.” In reality, it was 20x that, and not within walking distance for a regular commute. What’s more, the public transportation would require several transfers and would have taken an hour or more each way. To that end, I was stuck with using some sort of pay-for-ride service.
To be blunt, neither the taxis nor the Uber service cars were particularly head-and-shoulders above each other. In reality, it’s far closer to fair to say that they are mostly both equally bad, just Uber is a little less bad than the taxis.
Obviously, you’ve heard about the conflict between the taxi industry and Uber. In Barcelona, (I just found out for researching this blog post), it may even still be illegal the cab drivers have protested and even gone on strike, just like London and Paris before. Not only that, but they have often threatened violence against Uber drivers and passengers.
Anecdotally, several Uber drivers have reported having their tires slashed and their passengers attacked by hit-and-run taxi drivers. The first Uber driver I consigned did not want to come to the hotel because he would have had to pass a gauntlet of taxis to get to me, and now I understand why.
This thuggish, union behavior – as atrocious and frightening as it is – does not appear to be stopping people from using the service or downloading the app (despite it’s illegality). Tourists like myself who may not even know that it’s illegal (or just assume that because it exists it’s on the up-and-up, as I did) may find themselves inadvertently signing up for some nasty politics. I, fortunately, did not have this issue, but I can see how the potential exists.
The fact that people want to continue using the service is a testament to just how fed up people are with the taxi system, however. Fares are capricious, drivers have a captive audience, and every time you get into one you feel as if you’re about to be scammed but can do nothing about it.
(By the way, in London I use Hail-O, a black cab app that does the same thing as Uber does, complete with payment tracking and fare accountability, but using licenced black cabs. The program exists in certain cities in the US, but far fewer than the Uber juggernaut)
Sadly, now that I know that Uber is illegal, I won’t be using it until they change the laws in Spain. Anyone who knows my views on blocking competition by regulation knows how I feel about this, but when in Barcelona, do as the Barcelonans do.
I wasn’t trying to make any sort of political commentary by doing this, nor was I looking to invite criticism of the Uber model, etc. I was simply trying to look at the practical experience of traveling by two different, competing methods of transportation. My conclusion, that the experience of Uber is better than traditional taxis, ultimately is moot.
It does show (to me), though, that the taxi system itself is broken, and broken to the point where people are so fed up that they will willfully break the law (in Barcelona, anyway) to circumvent the shards. Whether they simply looking for cheaper, more convenient transportation, or they are looking to stand up for themselves against a bully union-like taxi system (something I can appreciate), I will unfortunately not be able to be among them until the law has changed.
Who knows? Maybe a compromise can be reached that will actually improve the weaknesses in Uber, too.
I received a few replies (including one in the comment section below) that you could use MyTaxi or Hail-O in Barcelona as well. TaxiBarcelona had an excellent point – I should try to compare apples to apples by comparing the app solution to the app solution.
I agree – to a point. When it comes to payment convenience, there should be a comparison on an even level. Many of the criteria for evaluation above, though, remains exactly the same. Quality of the cars, comfort, safety, honesty – all is a direct comparison of the taxi versus uber cars.
But, for the sake of completeness, let’s do a quick update about the other two apps. This is not an app review, however. I didn’t spend nearly enough time with either app in Barcelona to give either of them a true fair shake. Then again, that really wasn’t the point.
MyTaxi: I have to confess, I had quite a few problems with MyTaxi in Barcelona. Perhaps the biggest was that at the end of the trip you must confirm the conclusion of the trip. While this does make sense, I found that this was problematic when we started going through portions of BCN that had little or no mobile coverage. I wound up spending 10 minutes at my hotel trying to get a signal while the taxi driver glared at me. It’s as if the entire system hung until I could push this damn ‘confirmed’ button.
The taxi app takes a lot of battery juice. I went from 70% battery life to 19% in just one taxi ride back to the hotel. After a full day at the conference I was lucky to have as much as I did, and that was only because I had an external battery pack in my bag on that day. If I had forgotten it, the taxi ride would have killed off the battery altogether and I would not have been able to confirm the ride. Hell, I don’t know if I would have been able to close out with a dead battery caused by the app in the first place. This is a pretty major design flaw.
Turn off the app? Sure! Great! I tried that too. Apparently disconnecting and reconnecting to the MyTaxi app service while in the middle of a ride confused the hell out of the login system, and once more I was sitting in the back of the cab, suffering at the mercy of the app to reconnect, log me in, and provide me with the payment confirmation screen. Connecting times with mytaxi are atrocious.
Hail-O: In London, I love Hail-O. Mostly because the black cabs are unlike any other taxi service in the world. The biggest problem with Hail-O is that you cannot log into the website and peruse your past history. Everything must be done from the app. The tracking of the cars is much better on Hail-O than either MyTaxi or Uber, however, but can’t make up for the issues with the drivers.
For instance, when I ordered the taxi using Hail-O from my hotel to the airport upon leaving Barcelona, I was waiting for the taxi. For some bizarre reason, nobody (not taxi nor Uber drivers) seemed to know where the hell the Hilton was on Avda Diagonale. Uber, at least, provides the opportunity to modify the pickup destination to include a name of where you are, and lets you text the driver (as I noted above) to give more information (say, wearing a hat, red scarf, etc.). But back to the story…
I was waiting for the taxi and, as I had come to expect, the driver did not appear to know either the hotel nor the number. The street address was 595, and evidently he stopped at around 500. Why? I have no idea. I got the message from Hail-O that the driver had arrived, when of course he had not. When we finally did meet up (I was standing outside waiting for him, so it wasn’t as if he had to wait for me), I was quite disturbed to see that the meter was already at E5.90 before I even sat down. Obviously he had started the meter when he accepted the call, not when he parked, let alone when I got into the cab.
Second Bottom Line
Obviously the use of MyTaxi and Hail-O improve the payment convenience quite a bit. Even so, the inconsistency of cost between taxi rides, the inability to get a quote in advance, and the lack of accountability even while using these applications do not come up to par with the Uber experience, I’m afraid (and I am no fan of Uber, as I hope I’ve shown above).
The good news is that at least I have a choice, even if I cannot use Uber legally. I choose not to do illegal things, however, so I’m going to continue to use Hail-O whenever possible. I do hope, though, that the Uber v The Taxi World debate has the effect of raising all boats, instead of sinking them. Only time will tell.