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Canberra's transport experiment: Uber and taxis compared

A week after the launch of ride-sharing in Canberra, how does Uber compare with the taxi network and where can passengers get value for money? 

On Friday The Canberra Times compared taxi and Uber rides from the city to Canberra Airport, measuring time and fare costs.  

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The results? Uber was much cheaper; taxis were marginally quicker.

That's the outcome in a nutshell, but it ignores some of the story. As a taxi passenger, you can't help feeling for the taxi drivers who are deeply worried and taking an economic hit. And in an Uber ride, there's a feel-good factor, with both Uber experiences unquestionably optimistic and modern.

"How does this work," we ask our Uber driver. "I just pick you up and drop you off, that's it," he answers. Of course.

On the first leg, pick up was from London Circuit just after 10am. The taxi got us to the airport in 19 minutes from the time we ordered in the cab app. Uber took 23. 

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On the return, Uber took 17 minutes from order while the taxi took 15 minutes from the airport rank. 

On cost, Uber won easily: $17.65 to the airport and $20.66 back. The taxis cost $25.97 to the airport and $31.75 back. That's a saving of $19.42 for the return journey and makes Uber 34 per cent cheaper. 

The problem is not that taxis are fleecing passengers; it's that they have a range of inescapable extra costs – leasing fees for plates, $24,000 a year in fees to Aerial, uniforms, security cameras and insurance. Cabs pay an airport fee, making our airport comparison an overestimate of the difference in costs. The taxi fare includes $3 charged by the airport, $1.20 for the rank manager and a $2.86 service fee. Uber drivers are required to pay the airport's $3 charge, the same as any driver in the 20 minute "express pick up" area.

A pleasant thing about Uber is a lack of fuss with cards or cash or receipts. You give Uber your credit card number when you get the smartphone application, and when each trip is finished, the driver pushes a button and an invoice is emailed to you.

This we like, but it also points to a major Uber stumbling block. You need a smartphone with location services activated and you need to make the app work, which it didn't at first for us on an iPhone 5C with maxed-out storage and an iPhone 6 Plus, which required calls to the phone company and online help from Uber. 

One of the taxi drivers tells us  about a passenger from Parliament House who had given up trying to book Uber after 30 minutes, instead calling a cab.

But Uber driver Syed cites two women in their 70s, one of whom had a smart phone, who caught a ride with him late one night.

Syed is a young man with two young children and his own business of repairing computers. He drove taxis some years ago but says he wouldn't do it again because of the inflexible shifts. As an Uber driver, he can do jobs if and when he chooses. "I drop off laptops and in between I pick up people," he said. He only started on Tuesday, but "heaps of work" has come his way.

This Uber trip is nothing but good: happy, safe driver, good price, clean modern car, no complications. But the trip back from the airport in a taxi brings home the impact of all this happy connectivity. Taxi driver Tran came to Australia in his late 20s from Vietnam and has been driving full-time for 12 years.

He drives a wheelchair taxi van, so is shielded to an extent, but nevertheless his income has taken a hit since Uber launched in Canberra – he says he's lost easily 30 or 40 per cent of trade. He signs on shift at 6am and doesn't get a job till 8am. On Melbourne Cup Day, he sat in the taxi queue at the race course while Uber cars lined up alongside to pick people up.

And he says quite apart from his own livelihood, there's the parlous future of taxi plate owners, whose investment has been wiped out "with the stroke of a pen", an "arbitrary" move he says is morally and socially wrong. He also warns of a "looming disaster" lurking under the deregulation in differing passenger insurance requirements for Uber and taxis – although the government says insurance rules are consistent.

Our return Uber driver, who doesn't want his name used, says his daughter is concerned he's driving ride-sharing customers. He took two days off last week after failing to make much money when Uber promised drivers high demand on Monday. But he's optimistic about meeting interesting passengers and making extra money for travel and family, and encourages his passengers to give him a five-star rating. 

So from a passenger viewpoint, Uber won this challenge – similar to taxis in timeliness and much cheaper. From the drivers' viewpoint, it might not be so rosy and there is clearly a long way to go before the industry adjusts to the new world of ride sharing. Uber offered few specifics about its first week in Canberra, beyond claiming "thousands of trips" and an average driver rating of 4.79 out of 5. 

An earlier version of this story did not include the $3 charge Uber drivers are required to pay to pick up passengers at Canberra Airport.