Sydney is an awful place to get around on the roads, mostly because cab drivers in the city are a nightmare. Apps designed to improve the experience like Uber and GoCatch set up shop here a while ago and have spent their time thumbing noses at the taxi industry in New South Wales because of the poor service they offer. But brace yourselves: regulation of these taxi apps is coming. The only problem? Nobody really knows what that means.
If you've never heard about Uber and GoCatch before, you're in the shrinking minority.
Uber is a car service in which you book either a cab, black hire car or luxury car to take you from A-to-B. Uber first set up shop in San Francisco, and came out to Sydney in October 2012, with a Melbourne launch soon after. Fares are billed straight back to your credit card so no money ever has to change hands at the end of an Uber ride.
GoCatch is a similar app, designed Down Under to take the sting out of catching a cab. Users and drivers are both given a profile to make sure that everyone is on the level before jumping in the cab, and fares are billed at standard rates. It's about adding convenience and transparency to the taxi industry, while simultaneously cutting out the middleman.
Both of these apps have that thing in common: they connect users to cab drivers rather than having to go through a centralised booking service which takes healthy cuts out of the fare in the form of surcharges.
There are other services around that do the same thing as GoCatch and Uber, but those are the two market leaders in New South Wales. These pseudo-transport start-ups have operated outside of formal regulation for a few years now, mostly because the transport regulation acts don't cover modern inventions like smartphones, but all that is about to change.
NSW Transport Minister, Gladys Berejiklian, and State Premier, Barry O'Farrell, today revealed that the taxi app space would soon be regulated in their great state in sweeping reforms to the taxi industry at large.
But this doesn't mean that the party's over for app-loving riders in Sydney and greater New South Wales. Quite the opposite. Transport Minister Berejiklian loves these apps.
She said in a statement:
Taxi apps are a convenient way for customers to connect directly with a driver and are currently not addressed by outdated transport laws.
We have already seen how real-time information on mobile phone apps has completely changed the customer experience on other modes of public transport, and it is time to modernise this out-dated taxi-booking process.
This is a small change that can make a big difference, opening up competition and giving customers the information they need when they book a taxi and providing more confidence when a taxi will arrive.
So what does that actually mean? Well, nobody really knows for sure. Probably because the legislation that would govern said changes is still in development.
The Minister went on in her statement to add that the apps will soon be governed by stringent privacy standards:
The reforms will safeguard customers by ensuring the apps meet the full range of customer service, privacy and safety standards that apply to existing booking services provided by taxi networks
But aren't these apps already self-governing the need for privacy and security of their users?
Yes. Yes they are.
The only other measurable change to come out of the legislation will be a slashing of the credit card surcharge on customer transactions. The minister's office tells us that you'll save around $2.50 on a $50 fare under the new surcharge legislation, but that won't affect cab apps much.
Uber doesn't charge any extra for paying with a credit card, mostly because that's the whole point of its service. GoCatch doesn't either.
So what changes really?
We thought we'd ask the people who run these taxi start-ups in Sydney what it means for their day to day business. They don't really know either...
Uber Sydney boss David Rohrsheim told Gizmodo this morning that he and Uber support any legislation that promotes more competition.
Meanwhile, GoCatch co-founder Andrew Campbell told us this morning that the company is "prepared" for regulation, but added that things shouldn't change too much for them if the privacy and security regulations were the only things being changed.
"[These regulations] shouldn't change anything too much. We already capture taxi drivers authority IDs and their licenses and a whole lot of other information from them and keep it safe. We don't anticipate too much change to our day-to-day operations and we focus very much on customer support and getting people taxis in a reliable timely manner," he said.
Andrew added that the regulation is less about controlling taxi apps connecting customers to apps, and more about reigning in some of Sydney's worst cowboy cabbies.
"The new regulation in the taxi industry has been brought in to increase customer service levels. The traditional taxi industry hasn't provided good service of late. GoCatch exists because of that fact and we deliver fantastic customer service to passengers and drivers and increase certainty, security and reliability. [The regulations] will only affect us in a positive way," he told Gizmodo.
The moral of the story? If you need a good ride, you'll find it in an app.
Both Uber Sydney and GoCatch are in regular contact with the Department of Transport and the Minister's office in relation to policy, and they both take part in discussions within the largely self-regulated sphere of the taxi and hire car industry.
We'll keep an eye on the development of the regulation to let you know if anything changes.