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Taxi Magic online booking smooth, taxi ride not so much

Taxi Magic is an online service and mobile app that lets you easily request a taxi around much of the region (and nation). I tried it for the first time this weekend, and found the technology very smooth, though sadly the taxi driver who arrived wasn't nearly so high-quality.

Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

Taxi Magic has apps for most smartphones, or you can send a text message or book on the Web. I used the Android app. It first lets you select from their participating providers: Yellow Cab in DC, Red Top in Arlington, Barwood in Montgomery County, and Alexandria Yellow Cab.

You enter a time and location, then get a notification when the taxi is on the way, and can even track it via the mobile app. I used Yellow Cab and also got telephone calls from them directly about the cab. After the ride, you can pay via a credit card using the app as well.

Using the app to request a cab is free, except for whatever fee the locality lets taxis charge for all dispatched trips, which is $2 in DC. If you want to pay by credit card through the system, there's a $1.50 "documentation fee."

This takes a lot of the hassle out of requesting dispatch taxis. Often, you never know if the taxi is coming, and if it's late, have to call a dispatch center and wait on hold for a long time. There's no need to carry a lot of cash or stop at an ATM if you realize at the end of the trip you don't have enough. It can be even more useful for travelers, who don't necessarily know the phone number of a local taxi company.

I'd use it again, but for the next airport trip, might try an Arlington company (which can pick up in DC to go to National). I'd most prefer EnviroCab, which uses all-hybrid vehicles, but they're not on the Taxi Magic network (yet, at least). I actually called EnviroCab first, but they were all booked.

My Yellow Cab driver turned out to be one of the worst I've had in a while. As we were passing through downtown, he asked if I was going to pay cash or credit card; when I said I was using the app, he announced he wanted to transfer us to another Yellow Cab, and turned off the route to go past a hotel where one was waiting. I refused and insisted he take us to the airport, as he is required to do.

He also answered 3 phone calls during the short 15-minute ride. After he answered the second, I asked him politely to please not talk on the phone during the trip. He started angrily shouting that he didn't place the call, but it came, in, and he "had to" answer the phone.

He also said that no law prohibited it. When I tried to calmly note that, in fact, DC law does forbid talking on a handheld phone while driving, he went on a long rant about how he's a "family man" and has no choice about answering the phone. Given that the 1st and 3rd phone calls involved him telling someone his current location, I suspect they weren't calls from his family, but either way, it wasn't appropriate.

He was holding the phone in one hand and the steering wheel in another as he turned from the 14th Street Bridge onto the GW Parkway along the tight turning ramps, and I really worried he would hit something or another car as he merged.

There's not a lot one can do to avoid taxi drivers who shout at you if you ask them to drive safely, except report it to the taxi company and the Taxi Commission, which I will do. One helpful side effect of using Taxi Magic is that it lists the taxi number on the app and in the confirmation emails, so even if you forget to get the car number, you have it for a report.

As for his attempt at getting me out of the cab because I wasn't going to pay cash, that's something cab companies and Taxi Magic will have to work on with drivers. Other cities like New York encountered some initial resistance from drivers about taking credit cards.

Presumably, one of the reasons cab companies might want to participate in Taxi Magic is to get the extra dispatch calls it would bring in over their competitors. If a company wants that business, it needs to make sure its drivers won't then resist what comes with it. I wasn't a regular Yellow Cab customer before (and this didn't make me one); they wouldn't have gotten this fare except for Taxi Magic.

What has been your experience with taxi drivers and credit cards? Have you used this or another smartphone tool for getting taxis?

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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don't all arlington cabs (red top, blue top, hybrid) take credit cards?

And arlington cabs always call you when the car is outside.

by charlie on Aug 16, 2011 4:12 pm • linkreport

Thanks for your review of Taxi Magic, it sounds like a really great tool! I agree with your assessment of Yellow Cab. They've been over a half hour late multiple times with no communication (when I called the night before) and they send one cab when I've got a group of 6 people that clearly need 2 cabs or a van.

The worst was when I was coming from the airport and needed to make 3 stops and the cab driver wanted to charge us the price it cost from the airport to the city multiplied by three instead of resetting the fare at each stop. When we told him to pull over so we could get in another taxi, he argued us for 10 minutes pointing to a rule on the brochure that had nothing to do with multiple fares.

Unfortunately, they are the only company I've found that you can call in advance and my company uses them, so I probably won't be able to avoid them.

by Jeremy on Aug 16, 2011 4:20 pm • linkreport

I've used Taxi Magic to call Arlington Red Top cabs quite a few times and it has been problem-free each time. I didn't use the app to pay for the fare though, I just swiped a credit card in the vehicle.

As for DC cab drivers, I've had more negative experiences with them lately though that might be due in large part because it's been to drive me back to Bethesda late at night.

by Fitz on Aug 16, 2011 4:25 pm • linkreport

Although I have not used this app, I have had some problems with Barwood drivers and credit cards. From the driver's perspective, CCs are a losing proposition. Not only is the tip amount documented, but the cab companies take the processing fee out of the driver's pocket. While I could care less about the former, the latter is practically criminal.

On the other hand, Barwood drivers are wonderful compared to DC cab drivers. I now do everything in my power to not take a cab in the city. The service is rude, the drivers are scofflaws, and the cabs themselves are stench-laden deathtraps.

by Dave J on Aug 16, 2011 4:33 pm • linkreport

I've used credit cards a couple of times each in NYC and DC, and I haven't had a problem yet. Maybe this driver has an innocent explanation, but usually when someone insists on cash instead of a card, my gut instinct is that they're trying to defraud either their boss or the IRS.

by tom veil on Aug 16, 2011 5:08 pm • linkreport

The problem is that, even with some of the changes brought about by Mayor Fenty, the DC taxicab system is still viewed by the city council and the Taxicab commission as:

1. A jobs program for unskilled workers;
2. A group of voters and political contributors;
3-99 a bunch of other things...
100. A part of an overall transportation strategy for the city.

Until #100 becomes #1, you will never have a true functioning cab system in this city. That means that innovations like...late model cabs (required now in many cities, DC in fact gets rejects from NYC), hybrid cabs (soon to be required in NYC and other cities), universal credit card acceptance (required in many cities), clean interiors with working AC and heat, drivers required to know the basics of the city, and real taxicab inspectors (DC needs more inspectors and they need more authority), are never going to come to DC.

I shudder to think about the first impression visitors to DC get when they step into a DC cab at the airport or Union Station.

by Jaye David on Aug 16, 2011 5:44 pm • linkreport

I have had drivers refuse to take me from a spot on the West side of the Capitol to Dupont Circle, as "too far" and am routinely refused service if I want to go further out in DC or to Maryland. Usually, Georgetown to Silver Spring. If I get one, they are usually whining about what an inconvenience it is. I have reported drivers, but heard nothing. Now I call a MD cab company to collect me in the city. They are usually fine, but some have no idea how to navigate.

by SJE on Aug 16, 2011 5:45 pm • linkreport

I first used this app about (at least) a year ago for Alexandria Yellow Cab. It worked great. Made for a much more pleasurable experience.

by Kevin Beekman on Aug 16, 2011 6:11 pm • linkreport

In DC, if you are going to another part of DC, only DC Yellow accepts dispatched rides. All other companies are hail only (not 100% sure about that but pretty sure). Doesn't matter if you're using Taxi Magic or not. If you are using Taxi Magic and are headed from DC to Arlington you can get a Red Top taxi, DC to Alexandria an Alexandria Yellow Cab, or DC to Bethesda area a Barwood Taxi. The rules for which taxi companies can pick up where in the DC metro area are likely the most complicated in the nation.

by Derrek on Aug 16, 2011 6:45 pm • linkreport

@Jaye David; there is a well serviced Airport cab operation. New cabs, credit cards, and clean. Of course GGW would prefer that it be shut down....

I wonder what $5 in CMAQ money could buy you in cab improvements.

by charlie on Aug 16, 2011 6:46 pm • linkreport

Taxi magic rarely works for me when I use it after 10pm or am requesting outside a place that cabs already are. I'm excited for Uber to get to DC in 6 months, that is a great app and a great service

by Ari on Aug 16, 2011 8:34 pm • linkreport

I use Taxi Magic every time I book a cab in Arlington (unless I hail one). The best part is the receipt it emails you (if you can get reimbursement from work or a deduction on your taxes if self-employed and it's for work). I also like how it shows you the location of the cab on a map via GPS (though it doesn't update frequently enough) before it picks you up.

When I book a cab the night before with Red Top using the app, it typically shows up on time or several minutes early.

There's no dispatch fee in Arlington, so I almost always use the app unless there's a cab driving by right then.

The app was developed by RideCharge, which is based in Alexandria.

I think Red Top was one of their early adopters. The fannies were a bit herky with it for about a year. But every one of them seem familiar and ambivalent to it now.

by Joey on Aug 16, 2011 9:04 pm • linkreport

Sorry iPhone fail. Fannies=cabbies.

by Joey on Aug 16, 2011 9:05 pm • linkreport

@Charlie... my worst credit card experience was with a Washington Flyer driver. After getting back to Woodley Park from Dulles, he bickered with me for ten to fifteen minutes about taking my credit card. This was all after I specifically asked him (and the cabstand guy) if he took plastic before leaving the airport.

by JMC on Aug 16, 2011 10:35 pm • linkreport

As Ari mentions, could be a game changer. Reportedly, it runs 1.5x-2x the cost of a cab, in NYC anyways, but if the service is an order of magnitude more reliable, it might carve out a significant niche.

But perhaps more importantly, smart phone connectivity could let limo companies be used as consumers like taxi companies but be free of taxi regulations. Limos can't do street hails or taxi stands, but smartphone apps could make 'pre-arranged' happen with very little lead time. DC law says they couldn't use the word 'taxi' or 'taxicab' but doesn't prohibit the word 'cab'.

One thing I could imagine is that you enter your starting location and destination and let various limo operators bid for the ride in real time, with the customer choosing based on price, present proximity of the vehicle, and perhaps eBay-like feedback scores. There are still cross-jurisdictional licensing issues (although I don't think there's anything that prohibits limousines and their operators to be licensed in multiple jurisdictions) but while an Arlington cab, after dropping off a passenger in DC, can only pick up a passenger going to Arlington that is at the same location as the dropoff, and can't, for example, be dispatched a few blocks away to pick up someone going to Arlington, this restriction doesn't, as far as I can tell, apply to limo companies. So they could offer lower bids on rides, to get something out of the return trip back to their home jurisdiction, where a taxi would have to go home empty. Or perhaps as uber expands, it will incorporate normal taxi-style sedans at a lower price than the present upmarket vehicles.

by thm on Aug 16, 2011 10:53 pm • linkreport

I recently used several cabs during a trip to Boston... they were great! Touch screens in the back with GPS location tracking, credit card processing, and some actually humorous "blue law" trivia (sucker for that kind of thing...) These were apparently installed in 2009. The cars were largely newer Toyota Camrys (Camries?).

The downside - according to new reports, the cabbies pay a 6% transaction fee, so there's still some that resist taking cards, especially for low fares, but I didn't have any trouble.

I had some trouble hailing a cab outside a T station in a rain storm (probably no more than at many Metro stations on a Sunday morning), but all in all a much smoother experience than DC.

by Sachchit on Aug 17, 2011 12:26 am • linkreport

One work around in DC is call the Black Car service of Red Top. They will pick up and drop off in DC.

by steph on Aug 17, 2011 5:56 am • linkreport

I've used TaxiMagic since it was released several years ago in Denver, Arlington, Baltimore, Atlanta and a few other places I can't remember right now. Several times I was the first fare using TaxiMagic and the cabbie would have a conversation with the dispatcher about what was going on.

What I like about TaxiMagic:
- It is easy to use, much easier than waiting for a dispatcher to answer
- When a cab accepts the trip, you get the cab number and the driver's name and a map shows you where you are and where the cab is so you know about how long a wait you will have.
- You get a great trip record you can use for expense reports, complaints and compliments, etc.
- You can pay for both the ride and the tip without having to disclose your credit card number to the cab driver or cab company

I think there is some push back for using credit cards because it is easier to take cash and not claim it as taxable income than credit card transactions. Also, the cabbies get the cash right then, they have to settle up with the credit card payments on the cab company's schedule.

by PDerby on Aug 17, 2011 7:42 am • linkreport

I am always amazed at the effort some will put into arguing with a cab driver. I simply walk on the fare. Money talks.

Cab driver spends his entire time on the phone after asked to stop, especially in DC where it is illegal, I walk on the fare. They drive like an asshole. No fare. They argue with me about taking a credit card, no fare

You are paying a cab to provide you a service. They don't provide that service, they don't get paid. It is pretty simple.

Then again I only take a cab a few times a year. After having spent years and years of horrible cab experiences in this town, I just stopped taking them. Putting meters in the car was only a marginal help.

by freely on Aug 17, 2011 8:20 am • linkreport

Just adding a +1 to the "cabbies being jerks about taking cards" issue. If the companies take the service fees from the drivers as has been suggested here, ok. I can understand their frustration, I wouldn't like it either. But take it up with management, not your customers.

I have had something resembling the following conversation several times:

"You don't have cash"?
"No. I don't have cash"
[Some form of huffiness, complaint, offer to take me to an ATM (out of the way, ATM fees for me), asking why I don't carry cash, or "are you sure"?]
"Look, I called THIS taxi company specifically because each and every taxi takes cards, unlike the other guys who can be either/or. I'll happily just call them next time if taking a credit card is such a hassle".

by Catherine on Aug 17, 2011 10:13 am • linkreport

Just wanted to submit another vote for using Taxi Magic to hire a Red Top cab to DCA from inside of DC. Red Top drivers have uniformly been courteous and safe in my experience, in marked contrast to their DC-based counterparts, who seem openly hostile. Also, Red Top drivers seem totally cool with Taxi Magic. If you leave them a tip on the app, the amount shows up on their screen immediately in the front seat.

by Lane on Aug 17, 2011 10:30 am • linkreport

It still strikes me as absurd that we have to rely on some 3rd party application just to pay for a taxi ride in the nation's capital. We need to ditch this godawful system and take the NYC approach - uniform cabs, easy payments, helpful in-car navigation system, etc.

Most 3rd world countries have better taxi systems than the godawful DC mess.

by swester on Aug 17, 2011 10:57 am • linkreport

I've had two different hotels, one near the Convention Center, and one near Crystal City, that the bellman got me a for-hire vehicle that was waiting on the curb nearby to go to where I was going in the morning. No cabs around anywhere. I was wondering if there was some side arrangement going on with the town car drivers and the bellmen or if this was easier for the hotels than trying to hail cabs for guests.

by JQ on Aug 17, 2011 12:39 pm • linkreport

As others have said, the taxi drivers can be a real pain sometimes.

I use Taxi Magic often in Arlington and actually give Red Top high marks for just about every trip. They are quick, mostly nice, and rarely care about whether you are paying thru taxi magic, CC, or cash.

I make it a point to tip with cash but pay through the taxi magic app as that usually quiets them from complaining.

Only 1 time have I ever gotten a complain about paying for the fare through the app....I just told him I had no cash so it was either the app or nothing. He went along just fine

Some here have said that taxis offered to take them to an ATM....honestly, if anyone ever told me that, I would tell them to go F-themselves and walk off if my app wasnt acceptable immediately. That is so out of line and ridiculous

by Will on Aug 17, 2011 1:24 pm • linkreport

I don't get it. Wouldn't it just be easier to call Red Top? They are pretty efficient.

by beatbox on Aug 17, 2011 5:14 pm • linkreport

Re: which companies dispatch in DC - I always use Diamond Cab. I used to take them frequently to DCA from DC, though I have also used them for locations within DC without a problem. You can set up a future pick up if you are going to the airport, but not to other locations. Some of their cabs are in pretty bad shape, though...

by JCM on Aug 18, 2011 1:57 pm • linkreport

taxis aren't the only thing that are better in Arlington than in DC....

by ed on Aug 18, 2011 4:11 pm • linkreport

DC to DCA I always use Red Top and just call the night before to reserve. They are always early, they are always pleasant, and the cabs are always clean and in good repair.

My best Red Top experience - I once had to take a cab from King Street metro to my car repair shop in Arlington and only had enough cash to get half way there (this was before all Red Top cabs took cards). So, I told the guy to drive me for $8 worth of the way and I'd walk the rest. He took my money, got me the whole way there, and didn't even complain.

I hail DC cabs on the street about 3x week and would say 75% are fine and 25% are awful. The biggest improvement would be for all DC cabs to be required to take credit cards.

by Anon2 on Aug 18, 2011 5:22 pm • linkreport

I've used the app to book a taxi when it looks like I'll need to save time over taking the bus for some destinations. I've had mixed experiences. Sometimes the cab arrives early, sometimes late. I've had some cab drivers try to call me to confirm my need for the cab when I've missed the automated call, and I had one cancel on me before the appointed time without notice (I missed his automated call by 2 minutes … I guess he had another fare waiting). I don't understand why you have to book an hour in advance to specify a time if the cab drivers themselves won't always follow it.

I can understand why the drivers are suspicious of online bookings—plans change, and I could theoretically hail a cab before they arrive. But I wish they would at least respect the requested appointed time. There ought to be a rule that they must wait 5 minutes before canceling the request as well so that there is a grace period for the customer. They could even charge a nominal cancellation fee for their time.

Unfortunately most DC cabbies talk on the cell phone during fares. It has yet to be prohibited in DC like it is in New York, and given the power of the taxi lobby I don't see it changing anytime soon.

by Omar on Aug 22, 2011 4:38 pm • linkreport

I forgot to mention—one time I had a cabbie hold me in his cab for 5 minutes while he waited for the payment to go through. I heard the machine "beep" to indicate the payment, but a button he pressed prevented the payment from displaying. He would not accept the confirmation number I got on my phone (RideCharge informed me this is an acceptable practice for security reasons … making me wonder why a confirmation number is needed).

Fortunately I've had very smooth experiences since then, with the "beep" coming within seconds of sending the payment from my phone. Most cabbies are impressed by the smartphone payment system and not so suspicious.

by Omar on Aug 22, 2011 4:41 pm • linkreport

I'm pretty sure Red Top was the intermediate step in my last taxi-to-the-airport failmess. See, I have to take a taxi to the airport (DCA) at 4:30 AM when I travel. I know, that's early, but flying halfway around the world is never convenient, and I don't have a choice. I can't even take Metro at that hour. Every time I call to get a taxi, they fail. This last time I started with EnviroCab. They didn't show up, so 15 minutes after they were supposed to pick me up I called and they said they "couldn't normally make pick-ups at this hour" (despite going ahead and taking my reservation the night before) and had called another cab company (I think it was Red Top) to come get me. So I called the second cab company, and they told me that it would be 25 minutes before they could pick me up. At this point, I'm now at around 4:50, with a 7 AM flight (DCA is always packed in the morning) coming up quicker every minute. I sigh heavily and hang up. They call me back 5 minutes later and tell me they can't pick me up, and hang up before I can start yelling. Yellow Cab was the company that FINALLY came and picked me up, however, the driver would not take MY route to the airport (which he is required to do upon request), and it took FOREVER and lots of extra fare to get to DCA (part of that was that morning rush had started to pick up by the time I finally got a cab, there would have been less traffic 45 minutes earlier). Fail. Mess. Failmess.

I've had other memorable experiences hailing cabs as well. I no longer take cabs except to the airport because the cab drivers always hit on me, for example, and I find that really creepy when I'm in a car being operated by a complete stranger (I had a Flyer driver one time actually exit the highway because he wanted to take me to his "favorite restaurant"...I told him to take me directly home or let me out of the car RIGHT NOW...SCARY, sorry, I don't care if you think that's an over-reaction). Taking a cab in DC is a joke. If I had a friend who was willing to drive me to the airport at 4:30 AM or drag me home late in the evening, I'd never take another cab in/around DC again.

by Ms. D on Aug 30, 2011 3:51 pm • linkreport

The thing you seem to be missing is precisely how Taximagic makes money. Somebody has to be paying for all that technical wizardry, and if it's not you, and it's not the cab company, then guess who? It's extorted from the driver.

The average driver has to work at least 90 minutes a day extra to make up what it costs him in fees forced on him by his company, which are the marked-up fees from what TaxiMagic has charged his company to process the credit card.

So, what you gain in convenience by getting to use your mobile toy to book a taxi instead of making a phone call, and by swiping the credit card on a terminal that you control instead of paying the driver, you lose in cooperation from the driver. All equations must balance. There's no such thing as a free lunch.

From the driver's point of view, you're requiring the driver to make up to 1/3 less money on the transaction just so that you can use your toys and feel high tech. If everyone used Taximagic, then the driver would have to work up to FOUR hours extra every single day to earn the same money as if everyone paid cash.

There is a reason that taxi drivers work 12/7, and it's not because they are getting rich. Do you really want a driver who drives 16 hours a day just to make ends meet? How does that benefit your safety?


by TaxiDriver on May 6, 2012 10:04 am • linkreport

Somebody has to be paying for all that technical wizardry, and if it's not you, and it's not the cab company, then guess who? It's extorted from the driver.

You and I have different definitions of extortion.

Sure, this device may reduce cab driver earnings. Too bad. Customers should have this choice.

I don't understand why these cab debates center around caring about cab drivers individually, in a way that does not mirror other policy debates. That's very odd to me.

by WRD on May 6, 2012 9:40 pm • linkreport

I used TaxiMagic very happily for a while. But then when I had my own ungodly early flight to catch (like 5:30 or 6AM) I prebooked a Red Top to DCA with Taxi Magic. I finally get a text message five minutes before it was supposed to arrive saying "your taxi has not yet been dispatched." So naturally I call Red Top, only to find that my reservation isn't in the system. At all.

Luckily, I made it, but it was a close one - and that's not a risk I'm willing to take. Done with TaxiMagic after that.

by GWJ on Jun 12, 2012 10:03 am • linkreport

I recently returned from Philadelphia where I had a couple of unfortunate incidents with taxi drivers. The first was for a short trip from the terminal to the Fairfield Inn hotel at the Airport. The fare should have been $8-$9 but was $20 because the driver was not metering the fare. On top of that, he said his credit card processor was not working. The second incident was where the front desk called for a cab from the hotel to a business a short distance away. Well, the cab never came, I presume because when they asked where I was going, the fare wasn't worth picking up.

I did report this to the Philadelphia taxi commission and did receive an immediate response. The driver for the first incident was charged a $100 fine and I was refunded the difference between what I paid and what the fare should have been.

Taxi cab drivers are ambassadors for the city they work in. They give the first impression of the city to anyone getting picked up at the airport. Philadelphia and the honorable Michael Nutter understand that and are working closely with the licensed cabs to address issues as quickly as they happen. As consumers, we owe it to the cities that care, to report poor taxi cab service.

by Steve J on Jun 9, 2013 4:37 pm • linkreport

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