Omaha cab fleets join e-hailing trend

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Posted: Wednesday, October 9, 2013 12:00 am

E-hailing — or hailing a taxi via your smartphone — has arrived in Omaha.

NexTaxi, an app made by Universal Tranware, has been implemented in several Omaha cab fleets, including those of Happy Cab, Checker Cab, Yellow Cab, Cornhusker Cabs and Safeway Cabs, all of which are owned or managed by Mark Mitchell.

The free app, available for Apple and Android devices, allows users to request a cab, track it until it arrives and pay, all via one's smartphone. Other features: The app shows users their route while in the cab, making it obvious when a cabdriver is deviating from the route, and it tells users the cab number and driver in the event that the rider forgets something in the cab.

E-hailing has taken off in larger cities such as New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco with smartphone apps such as Uber and Hailo, which connect users with a town car or a taxi near them, and allow them to pay and, in Uber's case, rate drivers. However, those services have been slow to move into smaller markets where cabs are not an everyday necessity.

“The idea is not radical but it's pretty new,” NexTaxi co-founder Earl Esptein said. “Five years ago, people didn't think of their smartphone as much more than a way to surf the Web and make phone calls, and now people expect it to do everything.”

Instead of going directly to drivers, NexTaxi implements its app into entire existing fleets, ensuring a safe, on-duty driver that must follow specific regulations outlined by the Nebraska Public Service Commission.

“There's a safety component there we think is very important,” Epstein said. With driver-targeted apps, any off-duty town car, limousine or taxi driver can pick someone up — even drivers who have been working for the past 15 hours.

Many other apps also charge extra during peak traffic times or charge more for multiple riders or for canceling a cab, but NexTaxi is free when users enter the promotional code “TAXI” when registering.

NexTaxi is available in large markets like Orlando, Fla., Chicago and Manhattan, as well as smaller cities like Omaha, Lincoln, Council Bluffs and Iowa City. The app was created by Tucson, Ariz.-based Universal Tranware, which has been in the taxi software business for about 20 years.

The app has been available in Omaha and Lincoln for about two months, and Happy Cab information technology director Jeremy Eickman said more than 20 cabs are hailed via the app on a typical weekend night, although it varies depending on local events and the weather. Cabs are used more frequently in the winter, he said.

Typical users so far are age 20 to 30 on the weekends, he said.

Trent Allen, 26, of Lincoln said he has used e-hailing apps Uber, Sidecar and Lyft while traveling in Los Angeles and Austin, Texas. Allen said one of the most valuable features is being able to use his smartphone to pay for the cab fare because it's not always clear whether cabs accept credit cards or cash only.

One drawback of implementing the app into existing cab fleets, he said, is that there will still be a shortage of cabs on busy nights, like during the College World Series or on New Year's Eve.

However, Allen said he would be open to using NexTaxi. “I would say that's a really good start. That has the features I'd want, anyway,” he said.

Drivers like the service as well, Eickman said. It allows them to limit the number of failed pickups — where the driver and the person who called the cab just can't seem to find each other — because the rider can always see the taxi's location in the app. If riders want to cancel their cab, they can do that, too, via the app before the driver arrives and has already lost money and time.

And the service is also paperless, which limits the amount of time a cabdriver might spend handling cash or doing paperwork.

Epstein said that Lincoln and Omaha were good candidates for the service because of the large populations of college students in both cities, but the company is hoping to get into as many markets as possible as quickly as possible.

Eickman said he and Epstein are working on a Web-based version of the app for people to use on computers to capture people who may not be comfortable using a smartphone. Eickman said Happy Cab has also reached out to hotels in Omaha that might be interested in using that version to request cabs for their customers.

“We wouldn't say no to somebody from a small town or somewhere that's not high-profile,” Epstein said. “We're very excited to be in the markets that have regular people.”

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