Taxi, New York City, 2013
The cab-summoning app Hailo is dead.
Yesterday, it suspended operations in North America, opting to concentrate its business in Europe and Asia.
Media coverage has conflated the many e-hailing apps that enable travelers to call a car using their smartphones. Uber and Lyft, the two dominators, use a system of private cars, many unlicensed. They are thriving, largely to a combination of smart marketing, venture capital, and (recently) low fares local taxi systems won't match.
But Hailo was different. It was created by former London cabbies who sympathized with their situation. They worked with licensed taxi drivers in order to throw them extra business. Like Uber and Lyft, riders could use Hailo to summon a nearby taxi to their location, and because payment was handled though the app, no cash changed hands. The setup was safer for both rider and driver, and because Hailo worked with cabbies to give them business during down times, it gave advantages to professional taxi drivers.
In the end, the entrenched livery industry was so terrified at the changes—after all, having to compete on a more open market would mean it would have to lower prices to charge market rates--and rather than seizing the new technology or molding it better to its needs, it attacked it. Drivers refused to sign up. Black cab drivers hired lawyers. There was resistance to helping the app design its payment system to match in-cab software.
Industry guilds lobbed lawsuits instead of hitching a ride with Hailo. They should have capitalized on the fact someone else paid to create the technology and help boost it to dominance. A year and a half into the battle, a drained Hailo acceded its market share to the better-funded victors, Uber and Lyft.
Cab drivers are losing the war because they're out of touch. Hailo was one of the best-funded last chances to join the 21st century, and it should have fought tooth and nail to get a piece of the action. Instead of seizing upon Hailo as the bridge to the next generation, the livery industry initially fought to put it out of business. With that outlet now gone, they've cemented themselves in most cities as the transportation method of last resort.
It didn't have to end this way. Private driver apps didn't have to emerge the victor over professional taxi drivers, but it looks like they have, and a rising generation of travelers will now think first of hitching with private drivers and not of hailing a more expensive, hand-in-the-air cab on the street.
I would personally love to have an app I could use to hail a standard cab no matter where I travel. But with Hailo gone, there's no serious analog left on the international market. To hail a yellow cab, I have to research phone numbers wherever I travel, dial a dispatcher, explain where I am, wait—and I have to make sure I have enough cash on hand. But with Uber, I just take my phone out of my pocket and see a map with the nearest cars, which most of the time are cheaper anyway and are charged automatically to my credit card. Uber and Lyft have some serious flaws that need to be fixed, but their general premise works, and it's only too obvious its booking model is better for travelers than walking to the curb and sticking your hand in the air.
In Europe, where transportation answers always seem to come long before the United States even considers the question, taxis have rapidly become something you only hail because there is no other alternative. Suddenly, in major cities where Uber operates, paying for a taxi has become like buying cookware at the grocery store--you don't do it because it's the best deal or even the best quality, but because you need it fast.
To give you a hit of how tone-deaf the taxi industry has been to the encroachment of private driver apps such as Uber: In June, taxis across Europe went on strike to protest the advent of the apps, choking city streets. The action was widely viewed as so selfish, and as manifestation of the entitlement that the entrenched taxi industry appears to feel, and so in response, Uber sign-ups skyrocketed 850 percent.
So goodbye, Hailo. It's always tough to see competition fail, especially when it's in an area where prices tend to run high. But it's even sadder for the taxi industry, which was handed a lifeline and slapped it away.
Photo credit: Jim Pennucci/Flickr