In Baltimore, taxis are getting into the ride-hailing app game.
Transdev, the international company that owns Yellow Checker Cab of Baltimore, is launching its zTrip app in the city on Thursday.
The app, which is available for iOS and Android, was beta tested by the company in Kansas City over the last year. By the spring, the company expects to have it available in 18 cities, said Bill George, president of the taxicab business in Transdev’s On Demand Division.
In Baltimore, the app has been rolling in soft-launch mode this week, with about 200 rides ordered between Tuesday and Wednesday. “Drivers are thrilled with it,” George said.
A look at the zTrip app. (Courtesy image)
At this point, it’s obvious that the cab service is entering the same app space where services like Uber and Lyft have made big inroads in recent years. After entering in Baltimore, the ridesharing services officially got on the books in Maryland last year with a new — and separate from taxi — regulatory framework adopted by the state legislature. This week, Lyft announced an expansion into Annapolis and Baltimore surburbs, and Uber added more Maryland cities last October.
Ridesharing companies haven’t been shy about their intentions to disrupt the taxi industry in general, with its entrenched regulations, and the many individual difficulties getting a ride we’ve had over the years. It would be easy to look at the app as an attempt to catch up by imitation. But given all the flack taxi companies take and the fact that we started the New Year with word of an $1,100 Uber ride on New Year’s Eve, it’s only fair to hear George out.
Riders, he said, “can still call for a cab, hail a cab, text for one or order on our website. This is just another way to order the vehicle.”
Like ridesharing, zTrip has driver tracking and a ratings system, and allows riders to pay with a credit card through the app (though cash is still an option). Transdev also introduced a new computer dispatch system in Baltimore that’s syncing with the app and other forms of ordering. But George said zTrip has a couple of features that are designed to make it distinct. For one, there is no surge pricing. “The price is the same, 24/7,” George said. Riders can also book rides in advance. A button on the app also provides access to live customer service, and another is coming soon to request ADA compliance.
George also pointed to the drivers themselves as an asset. They’re professional, and they’re driving regulated vehicles, he said. Along with the dispatch system, the fact that the drivers may know a shortcut also shortens ride times. We asked if Transdev has lost drivers to the ridesharing companies, who offer flexibility as an independent contractor.
“When the app services have opened up, there was an initial departing of some drivers. Typically most of them come back,” he said.
Transdev is planning a launch party for the app from 6-9 p.m. tonight at Phillips in the Inner Harbor. They company says it will donate to the Kennedy Krieger Institute as part of the launch.
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A new ride-hailing service in Jacksonville is leading to the renaming of two old standbys in the transportation world: Yellow Checker and Gator cab companies of Jacksonville will officially be called zTrip as of Tuesday.
The company zTrip is similar to other personal transportation services such as Uber and Lyft in that a mobile phone application is used to hail a ride, but the vehicles can also be hailed on the street by riders in the traditional fashion of waving down a taxi. Already present in several cities, zTrip will not only be offering the mobile app service, but Checker and Gator cabs in Jacksonville will be changing their names to follow the zTrip branding.
That means the traditional Checker and Gator cab vehicles familiar with riders will go from the yellow and checked motif to silver paint with the zTrip logo which has a red “z” and black lettering for the “Trip” part of the logo, said Bill George, president of Transdev On Demand, owner of zTrip, Gator Cab and Checker Cab.
“We started the zTrip app about five years ago. … It’s more than just a paint job. It’s complete use of technology,” George said.
The app is fully integrated into taxi cellphone dispatching systems, he said.
Boulder, Colo., Pittsburgh, Pa., and Kansas City, Mo. and Kansas, have already had Yellow Cab service converted.
The zTrip cars will still be considered taxicabs, but the company will also offer unmarked cars, which are more standard in Uber and Lyft services.
“They have all the capabilities of a cab; you can still hop into one. We offer flexibility of payment; you can pay the driver in cash or credit card or through the app,” George said. Uber is paid automatically through the smartphone application.
“We also allow you to book us now or book us later,” George said. Uber is virtually on-demand and comes immediately when hailed. George said riders can reserve a zTrip ride several hours in advance.
Another feature of Uber and Lyft services is that they normally have lower fares. But George said the zTrip service is different from Uber or Lyft because zTrip does not do “surge pricing,” which increases fares during peak times of use.
“On a basis when they’re not surging, they [Uber and Lyft] can be cheaper. On the average trip, they might be a dollar or two cheaper, but when they surge they’re more expensive,” George said.
George said zTrip realizes there is still brand identity with the traditional taxis, so not all of them will disappear.
“When we change over a fleet, we put a host of new vehicles in there. In Jacksonville, we’ve added a bunch of new vans,” George said. “What we don’t do is paint over the yellow vehicles. There’s still some brand identity there.”
George said with the transition of the company and services added in with the fleet conversion and marketing, the project is costing the company $2.8 million.
“It’s a tremendous undertaking, but one that we get very positive results” in the cities that have already undergone the conversion, George said.
The alternative ride-hailing services have met with some controversy in many cities, including Jacksonville.
Jacksonville has failed to force Uber and Lyft and their drivers to follow the same regulations required of taxi drivers, which include vehicle inspections, background checks of drivers, and annual licensing fees. The city had demanded that the companies stop their operations, and issued a limited number of citations to the companies and their drivers.
Uber and Lyft officials maintain that they perform their own background checks. Despite those efforts, Jacksonville city officials said that they, along with other cities in the state, are looking to the Florida Legislature to settle the issue with an umbrella state law. But no such measures have been implemented.
George said the zTrip drivers are licensed professionals who receive background checks that include fingerprinting.
An email sent to Uber seeking comment was not returned Monday.
Drew Dixon: (904) 359-4098
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