Neighborhood Car Service Companies Adopt Their Own Apps to Fend Off Uber

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The chatty, frenetic dispatch hubs of neighborhood car services are getting quieter.

When the phone rings at High Class Limousine and Car Service in the Bronx, the conversation comes and goes in fleeting bursts as the dispatcher turns not to an old two-way radio but to computer screens that silently blink with color-coded letters and numbers tracking the fleet of cars and their calls.

Somewhere on the road, an app on a driver’s smartphone lights up with an address to go to. A fading corner of the industry lives another day.

Phone calls are fewer and fewer as customers shift to smartphone apps. Popularized by the ride-hailing company Uber, apps are being adopted, if not entirely embraced, by more and more of the local car services that have long been as much a part of city neighborhoods as the local parish or the corner bodega.

High Class began using a smartphone app in December, and since then, a small but growing number of ride requests have been made through it.

“We have to offer this thing or we’re going to be left behind,” said Antonio Cabrera, who co-founded High Class in 1995.

The software used by High Class tracks the active cars on a map with GPS. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times

When Uber made its New York City debut in 2011, it set out to remake the city’s for-hire car market — the yellow cabs and black cars in Manhattan, the neighborhood car services in the other boroughs and the newcomer green taxis in Upper Manhattan and other neighborhoods where yellow cabs rarely cruised for customers.

Uber’s rapid expansion has fed industry unease, especially among yellow-taxi owners and drivers, who see the ride-hailing apps as a threat to the value of the medallions that, at a considerable cost, have long provided entry into the tightly controlled business.

In addition, the ride-hailing company’s aggressive public relations tactics have fueled clashes with Mayor Bill de Blasio, who after initially championing a plan to cap the number of Uber vehicles chose to shelve the idea after he came under fierce pressure from the company and its supporters.

Little discussed in all the debate over the changes roiling the market are neighborhood car services. Most are small businesses that have been sustained by generational loyalty and a touch of personal service.

But after years of independence, some companies are joining forces, powered by an app to create a car service network in hopes of fending off Uber.

Issac Yehuda, a co-founder of Limosys Software, which has catered to the limousine industry since 1989, devised a network where each company could have its own app with its own brand, but that would link all of the bases to one software system so that companies could effectively pool their cars and serve more customers.

“It’s amazing to see competitors who didn’t speak together in 20 years are sitting in one room learning to talk to each other even when they’re two blocks away,” Mr. Yehuda said.

High Class is part of Mr. Yehuda’s network of over 75 companies — a total of 10,000 cars, across the five boroughs, with apps for Apple and Android devices. Collectively, the apps have around 250,000 downloads. Among all of the companies in the network, a few thousand rides are placed a week. Perhaps that is not a threat to Uber, which has about 20,000 for-hire vehicles in the city, according to the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, but it is a leap into a new world.

And they have at least one notable edge: They take cash. Uber relies exclusively on credit cards — and customers with the means to have credit cards.

“We have a big cash market because Uber doesn’t use it,” said Junior de la Cruz, a manager at First Class Car and Limo Service in Manhattan, who started his company’s app in early 2014.

John Donahue of Kelly’s Car Service drove Bridie Gauthier and her 3-year-old foster son, Kai Saucedo, from Queens to the financial district in in July. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Old habits die hard in University Heights, the Bronx neighborhood where about three-quarters of High Class’s rides from its Bronx and Manhattan bases are still requested by phone. But as Mr. Cabrera’s customer base ages, he sees the app as a way to cater to those who in the increasingly on-demand economy expect to summon a ride in seconds.

“They’re always in the area,” Levi Jimenez, 39, said in Spanish. A longtime customer of High Class, he now exclusively uses the app to book rides from his home in Upper Manhattan to work as an engineer in University Heights.

For a growing number of the city’s car service companies, an app was not only a way to hold onto customers but also to appeal to drivers, who, seeing the power of Uber, had been leaving neighborhood car services to experiment with the newcomer. High Class was hit hard, Mr. Cabrera said, losing about 50 drivers.

Mid Island Car Service on Staten Island saw its fleet dip to 16 drivers from 21 as Uber expanded, said Artie Grover, a co-owner of Mid Island and the president of the NYC Fleet Livery Owners Association.

“The driver has become the free agent,” Mr. Grover said.

In Bayside, Queens, Kelly’s Car Service, a fourth-generation family-owned company founded in 1914, has a prime location next to a Long Island Rail Road station. The dispatch center operates much as it did 50 years ago: green and orange cards for account and credit card charges, and white cards for walk-ins and call-ins, all posted along the wall. The dispatch microphone is always hot, and the corresponding car’s two-way radio works without a smartphone in sight.

Soon, bits of electronic data will supplant slips of paper. Eileen Kelly, an owner, is finally giving in to the app craze. It is expected to go live within a year, though Ms. Kelly and her family are hardly heralding the change.

“It’s only because everyone has them and that’s the way to go,” she said.

As drivers are witnesses to the wildly unpredictable nature of cab culture, the shift from paper to pixel is viewed as just one more change. John Donahue, a driver for Kelly’s who has 40 years of driving experience, shrugged at the idea of tossing his flip phone for a smartphone.

“You try to stay flexible,” Mr. Donahue, 74, said.

On a recent Monday, Mr. Donahue chauffeured Bridie Gauthier, a principal at a Manhattan preschool, and her 3-year-old foster son, Kai Saucedo, from Queens to summer camp at Ms. Gauthier’s school in the financial district. Ms. Gauthier strapped her son into his car seat, which is provided at no additional cost by Kelly’s, and fed him edamame during the commute. The railroad, she said, was not ideal for toting a toddler into Manhattan every day.

“Every dispatcher knows my name and every dispatcher knows my credit card,” Ms. Gauthier, 43, said. “Now I’m extremely spoiled.”

See story at New York Times

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