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How well do Lyft, Uber and taxis get you around Baltimore?

By Julie Scharper

The Baltimore Sun

2:50 PM EST, December 10, 2013

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Cars with pink mustaches and fist-bumping drivers. Rides in glossy town cars or SUVs. New ride-sharing companies Lyft and Uber are giving Baltimore's standard taxi cabs a run for their money.

To see how these companies compare, reporter Julie Scharper and photographer Lloyd Fox rode between the Avenue in Hampden and the corner of Broadway and Thames Street in Fells Point on a dreary recent morning.

Lyft

Ease of use of app: 4 stars (out of 4)

Wait time for arrival:11 min.

Quality of vehicle: 4 stars

Cleanliness of vehicle: 4 stars

Conversation with driver: 4 stars

Safety of ride: 4 stars

Cost of ride: $15 (passengers set their own donation; $5 was suggested for our ride)

Method of payment: Credit card entered in app; no cash changes hands

Website: lyft.me

Ever since cars around Baltimore started sporting furry pink mustaches a few weeks ago, we've been intrigued by the whole concept of Lyft. The company, which started in San Francisco last year, aims to give the feel of catching a ride with a friend. Drivers use their own cars. Passengers decide how much they want to pay. Fist bumps are exchanged.

It all sounds so West Coast — and ripe for corruption, Baltimore-style. What if your driver is a whack job? How can drivers trust passengers not to stiff them? Are we really mature enough for this?

Spoiler alert: Believe, Baltimore. Lyft is pretty damn cool. First of all, as soon as you open the app, you can see where all the Lyft cars are driving. They look like little 2D Monopoly cars roving over the map of Baltimore. We hit the button to "Request Lyft" from the Avenue in Hampden. Within a few seconds, the app informed us that a car was 11 minutes away.

It even showed us a photo of the driver and car and told us the driver's name, so we knew what to expect. This could also be a handy feature if, say, your ex, is a Lyft driver. With a quick click, you can dismiss a driver and request a different one.

Exactly 11 minutes later, Regina Santiful pulled up in her impeccably clean silver Mercedes. Yesiree, Bob, a real Mercedes with the little peace sign-esque thingie on the hood. A big change of pace from a dented Corolla full of old reporter's notebooks and empty water bottles.

We got in the back seat (Lyft actually encourages passengers to sit in the front and fiddle with the radio, but we didn't know that) and Regina reached back for the traditional Lyft fist bump. I give the fist bump three out of four stars. It was warm and lighthearted, but lacked any sort of Fred Flintstone "Loyal Order of the Water Buffalo" flourishes.

Regina punched our destination into her version of the app and hit the road. She was charming and pleasantly chatty, and seemed familiar in a Smalltimore kind of way. She took a direct route to Fells Point andwasn't fazed by road construction; frankly, the ride seemed like it was over almost too quickly. She hit a button on her phone when we arrived and my phone informed me that we had reached our destination (a handy feature if you are only capable of interfacing with the world through your phone).

The app simultaneously told me the suggested donation for the ride was $5 and asked me to rate Regina and write a little review of her. It was confusing to be presented with all of this at once. I thought I would do the review first and then increase the amount of the donation, but I wound up giving the $5 donation without realizing it. Then I thought I hadn't given her any money and she thought she had screwed up the app on her end, so I wound up going to great lengths to game the app to give her another $10.

When you give significantly more than the suggested donation, little fireworks explode on your screen, kind of like when you win Solitaire, which made me feel like Melinda Gates. All in all, we had a great experience with Lyft. Once I figured out how the payment/rating thing worked, it wasn't confusing at all.

Lyft might not feel as comfy as catching a ride with a friend, but it did feel like hopping in the car of a neighbor you didn't know that well — and what more could you hope for from a ride from a stranger in Baltimore?


Uber

Ease of use of app: 3 stars

Wait time for arrival: 24 min. (app screwed up our location)

Quality of vehicle: 4 stars

Cleanliness of vehicle: 4 stars

Conversation with driver: 3 stars

Safety of ride: 4 stars

Cost of ride: $61 (minus $10 promo)

Method of payment: Credit card entered in app; no cash changes hands

Website: uber.com

The Uber app, like Lyft, shows little 2-D cars moving around. Prompting the question: When will someone create an Uber-Lyft mash-up app where the two companies' cars battle each other?

Uber offers riders three different types of cars. There's UberX, which sounds like it's designed for slackery misfits that are stuck in the '90s, but actually means it's just a regular (newish, clean) car. Then there's a "black car," which is the sort of glossy town car in which politicians are driven around.

The most upscale choice is an SUV, and, since it was closest, that's what we chose. We knew it was the most expensive option, but we didn't realize just how pricey it would wind up being.

The app prompts you to set your pick up location and then allows you to change your method of payment to a different card, enter a promo code and see a fare quote. This is where I royally screwed up. Your current location — the place where the driver will be sent — appears at the top of the screen. I somehow missed that and didn't notice that the app thought we were in Harbor East, when we were in fact standing in front of the Waterfront Hotel bar on Thames Street in Fells Point.

So I looked at the little map and saw the car coming closer to the little blue dot that represented us. Except it wasn't us, because we weren't standing where the little blue dot was. How did I not notice this? Let's just say there's a reason I became a journalist and not a cartographer.

Just when we were getting very confused and impatient, Tariku Jimma, our very courteous driver, called. Where were we? I gave our address and he said he'd be on his way. That's when the tatters of my right brain activated and realized that the map was incredibly wrong. We moved the map to show our actual location and watched Tariku's car come nearer ... and then circled back to Harbor East. A woman playing flute nearby saw us huddling against the wind and asked if we were lost.

Five minutes later Tariku called again and we told him our address again — Waterfront Hotel on Thames near the intersection with Broadway. This time he finally showed up! It turned out that he had gotten confused when we said “Waterfront Hotel” and thought we were in a Harbor East hotel. Whew!

Tariku opened the door for us and we settled into the back seat of his very clean Lincoln Navigator and started to chat. He said he has been driving for Uber since it started in Baltimore a little over a year ago. The problem with the map reporting an inaccurate location has happened before, he said. We told him we were headed to the Avenue in Hampden, but he said he needed a more precise address to punch into his GPS. The Navigator was spotless and felt very safe and sturdy, which was a good thing, because we got stuck in terrible downtown traffic. The police closed off I-83 just as we were about to get on, and Tariku drove all the way up to North Avenue before he found an entrance ramp that was open. It was a long drive.

Tariku was very professional, but a man of few words, so we did not enjoy the kind of rambling conversation that can be the most fun part of hiring a ride (at least for an extrovert). But he got us back to Hampden safely, and as quickly as possible considering the traffic cluster.

We should have checked the “fare estimate” before we called the SUV, but we did not. So we were in for a huge surprise at the end of the ride when the Uber app informed us we would be paying $51 for our trip from Fells Point to Hampden. And that was with a $10 discount. For that kind of money, I would have expected to ride around in a hot tub carried by winged horses.

It was a nice SUV, but it wasn't a limo. It's hard to imagine who would want to pay that much money for a short ride in an SUV.


Taxi (Red Ball)

Ease of use of app: N/A

Wait time for arrival: 0 min. (one was parked nearby)

Quality of vehicle: 2 stars

Cleanliness of vehicle: 2 stars

Conversation with driver: 4 stars

Safety of ride: 4 stars

Cost of ride: $18.40 ($15.40 fare + $3 tip)

Website: redballtaxicabassociation.com

While we were bumbling with the Taxi Magic app, which allows you to summon a cab a la Uber or Lyft, a bunch of cabs passed. It seemed silly to use an app to call for something right in front of our faces, so we just hopped in cab parked nearby and embarked on a classic Baltimore cab ride.

Our driver, Victor Olatunji, was very friendly and launched into his life story with just a little prompting. He moved to Baltimore from Nigeria three years ago and drives a cab to pay for his classes as he studies to be a physician's assistant.

Conversations with drivers are always my favorite part of cab rides. I've learned a lot from them. One of my favorite cab drivers keeps a voodoo shrine of sorts on the dashboard and once gave me a horseshoe to draw good luck into my life. Cab drivers have taught me about the history and politics of Eritrea, a small African nation where many of our local cabbies were born.

Of course, there is always the risk of the cab driver whose meter is set too fast, or who takes riders on a circuitous route to collect a larger fare. But by and large, the cab drivers I've had in Baltimore have been honest. Victor drove us quickly and safely from Fells Point to Hampden, while chatting about his professional aspirations and griping about cab companies from other locales that illegally pick up people from the city.

But, not surprisingly, the ambience was sorely lacking. The outside of the cab had an interesting red and Band-Aid peach design, that was sort of vintagey and cool. Inside, the plexiglass divider between the front and back seats was well scuffed and there was a general film of groadiness over the cab. The cab smelled like an amalgam of everyone who had ridden in it — a mixture of wet boots and crackers and a vague, salty smell of Baltimoreness.

But there was nothing particularly objectionable about it and the seat belts worked, so cabs always get bonus points for that. In the end, it wasn't a luxury ride, or a trip with a faux friend, but it was a pleasant way to get around — as long as we focused on our conversation with Victor and not our ride.