Can Smartphone Apps & Carsharing Really Cut Cars On The Road?

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Highway traffic

Highway traffic

Sometimes, change is painful, devastating -- just ask the folks at Blockbuster Video or the residents of any neighborhood that's been split by new freeways.

Sometimes, change is wonderful, life-giving -- just ask the folks at Netflix or ambulance drivers who now have faster ways to get from the sites of emergencies to nearby hospitals.

Change is finally coming to the taxi industry, and no one is entirely sure whether the shift will mean the death of cabs as we know them or their radical transformation.

But given what we've seen of people and businesses that have dug in their heels and tried to stem the tide of progress (e.g. George Wallace, Yellow Pages, the recording industry), it doesn't look good for today's taxi drivers.

And if they do meet their end, they'll probably have the smartphone to blame.


The New York Times has published an interesting overview of the looming paradigm shift, which pits cab companies and municipal agencies against smaller, nimbler start-ups backed by the power of apps and social media. City officials often find themselves caught in the crossfire.

Consider Los Angeles, America's self-proclaimed home of car culture. Its streets are choked with vehicles, many of which contain just one commuter, fueling congestion problems. L.A. also witnesses a high number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

City politicians have lauded recent efforts to encourage carpooling and buying lower-emissions vehicles. The hope is that these advances, combined with a general trend toward driving less, will reduce traffic, cut pollution, and save lives.

Start-ups claim that they can aid those efforts by scaling back the number of car owners. For example, the app called Uber (formerly known as UberCab) quickly allows any smartphone owner to hail a taxi or car service via an app. It's simple to use, and it often promises cheaper fares than conventional cabs.

Lyft is another such app, one that allows users to find carpools or get a safe ride home after a long night out. More than a few Angelenos are making good money on the side by moonlighting as Lyft drivers, using their own cars to tote folks around town. 

And as if the ease of using the Lyft app weren't enough, Lyft doesn't charge a fee for its services; instead, drivers announce a suggested donation that's typically 20% less than a normal taxi would charge. Passengers can pay as much or as little as they like (though tightwads may have a tough time getting rides down the line).

Not surprisingly, taxi companies and the agencies that license them aren't happy about these apps. And in fairness, they have some valid points -- especially those concerning the safety of Lyft drivers, who aren't usually protected by bulletproof partitions like cab drivers are.

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