Because their policies are constantly changing, with new approaches, new methods of pricing and new prices introduced on a frequent basis, the in-city transportation companies called Uber, Lyft, Sidecar and Summon are ill-understood by most members of the public. I've spoken with numerous, highly intelligent people who aren't able to venture the simplest explanation of what Uber, Lyft, Sidecar and Summon are or do.
Forgive me for attempting my own explanation, which is shorter than most. But as far as I can tell, these new companies are really nothing more than upgraded versions of the various "car service" companies that already do business in numerous cities. One summons a traditional "car service" by phoning its headquarters and requesting that a car be sent to your office or home to transport you to an airport or other location. One summons Uber, Lyft, Sidecar or Summon by simply "texting" on an app that has earlier been downloaded to your cellphone. The car can find your location electronically, on no matter which street you're standing, and thereafter takes you to your desired destination.
When you use Uber, Lyft, Sidecar or Summon, your cellphone displays a map showing where you are and where the nearest Uber, etc., car is located that will be driving over to pick you up. It also provides you with a profile of the driver, his background and experience, so that a person who is akin to a "friend" picks you up. No money changes hands between you and the driver; everything is automatically billed to your credit card, and you simply exit the car without paying when you arrive at your destination.
You also see, on your cellphone, a description of the car coming for you, including such identifying marks (on Lyft's vehicles) as a fuzzy, pink moustache on the car's front grill. That way, you can spot the right car when it arrives to pick you up.
How do Uber's rates compare with those of a taxicab? That's difficult to answer. Uber initially began as a fleet of luxury limousines charging more than a taxi does. When many potential customers stopped using them as a result, Uber created an UberX using cheaper cars--and charging cheaper rates. In many cities, Uber now has a price advantage, and even more of a price advantage is claimed by Lyft and the others. Lyft, in fact, claims an average price that is 30% lower than taxis.
One thing probable is that Uber, Lyft and the others seem here to stay. Though they've been hit with every kind of lawsuit, from taxi companies to public authorities, they seem to have prevailed against all of them (though some of the legal actions persist, including one that was brought by the New York Attorney General against Uber's policy of sharply lifting the rates--so-called "Surge Pricing"--whenever bad weather or a natural catastrophe causes a sudden increase in the demand for in-city transportation). It should also be remembered that Uber and Lyft are now international in scope, and have successfully weathered taxi strikes and other protests against their operation. Yet they continue to do business in such cities as London or Paris.
A colleague of this website, who is now in Los Angeles, used Uber on three separate occasions this past week to get from place to place, each time paying $5 to $7 for the ride, which is much less than a taxi would have cost. And the Uber vehicle came within minutes of his checking the Uber app on his cellphone to summon it to his location.
Uber, anyone? Lyft, anyone? A new form of travel has just been created.