New taxi app fixing some issues before rollout

Hailo promises to find cabs and make payment easy

A taxi-tracking service that started last year in London, where it takes two to four years to learn everything the famous "black cab" drivers need to pass a licensing test, will make its U.S. debut in Chicago on Thursday.

The company, Hailo, is betting its new Chicago customers will feel like they are in "taxi heaven" — and be willing to pay a little extra, in the form of a $1.50 off-peak and $2.75 peak-hours fee above the meter charge.

But why pay extra, you may ask, in a city where there are plenty of taxicab options and, in addition to the Hailo app that is being introduced, already a burgeoning number of taxicab-finder mobile phone apps?

Among many reasons, for the convenience of not having to wait more than about five minutes for a taxi on average anywhere in the city and any time of day, and for preregistering so no cash or credit cards need to change hands in the taxi, according to Hailo officials.

And for the peace of mind that Hailo drivers are closely monitored, motivated by Hailo management to behave professionally and supplied with support and technology that help them avoid traffic jams and construction zones, the firm said.

"In London, parents will send their sick children home from school with Hailo because they can trust a company like ours," said John Thompson, Hailo executive vice president and the company's general manager for Chicago.

The gist of the Hailo service comes down to this: Instead of hailing a taxi on the street or phoning for a cab, customers make two taps on the Hailo app on their smartphone and the taxi is supposed to arrive in about five minutes.

Perhaps that goal will be met with regularity once Hailo, which does not own or directly operate taxis, recruits enough Chicago cabdrivers in its network to have hundreds of drivers on shift around the clock.

Hailo provided your Getting Around reporter with a beta version of the Hailo app that will be rolled out Thursday. This version is being used by friends and family members to test for potential problems.

On a gorgeous afternoon last week, I used the Hailo smartphone app to hail a cab from Adler Planetarium to Tribune Tower.

The app correctly located me on the lakefront on East Solidarity Drive, and it began to calculate the waiting time for a taxi when a pop-up appeared on the screen: "No taxis available. All taxis are busy. Try searching again or check our taxi ranks nearby and try to find one there."

I tried again. And again. And again for the next 45 minutes more than 100 more times, far exceeding the patience and effort of a normal customer. Same "No taxis available" result over and over, except when I tapped on "taxi ranks nearby" and the Hailo app suggested I walk from the planetarium to the 100 block of East Congress Parkway to get a Hailo cab. That's about a 11/2-mile walk.

No thanks.

Numerous other taxis that are not affiliated with Hailo cruised by the planetarium looking for business, and they found customers among the many tourists.

But I was on a mission. I hopped on to a CTA No. 146 Inner Drive/ Michigan Express bus to continue my Hailo test elsewhere.

I got off the bus at State Street and Roosevelt Road and launched the Hailo app again. "Sorry, no taxis available," said the message on the screen.

I tried a second time. Hailo finally found a cab for me and the app said it was eight minutes away. Then a new screen appeared with a photo of the driver; his first name, Mohammad; the taxicab number; and Mohammad's customer rating, five stars.

Mohammad then called my cellphone (which I provided as part of registering with Hailo). He politely confirmed my location and said he was about one minute away. He arrived right at the eight-minute mark in a Yellow Cab.

Customers are asked to rate the Hailo drivers on a one- to- five-star scale after each trip, providing daily feedback that helps Hailo managers weed out unprofessional drivers, Thompson said.

It's a two-way street. As part of Hailo's efforts to increase business for cabbies, all of whom lease their vehicles from other taxi firms but are signed up with Hailo too, the drivers also rate the customers. It helps Hailo identify clients who create problems, say, like those who overimbibe and puke in the cab.

"Over time, we have the ability to look into our system and say we seem to have some people in the mix, both passengers and drivers, who are not really jibing with what we are trying to do here or maybe there is some friction. We can do some coaching and training and interventions with social media, and sometimes you call people," Thompson said.

During my ride with Mohammad Khiyani, he said he joined Hailo as a way to generate extra business beyond picking up people randomly on the street or receiving assignments from Yellow, which like other cab companies charges drivers a fee on dispatched trips.

He apologized when I told him about the problem I encountered outside the planetarium.

"Today is a busy day for the cabdrivers," he said, "because the weather is very nice and there is some sort of convention in town."

That may have been true, but Hailo postponed its planned Chicago launch from Oct. 4 until this week, in part, because it wanted more time to recruit cabdrivers, Thompson said. He wouldn't say how many drivers Hailo has recruited so far.

When the taxicab pulled up to Tribune Tower and stopped, the Hailo app on my phone screen updated to show an itemized bill. The fare matched what the meter in the cab said, added a Hailo fee of $1.50 for nonpeak hour service and the 15 percent tip that I preselected in my profile when I registered. The screen provided options to change the tip amount, up or down, and it asked me to rate Mohammad.

Uber Technologies Inc., another new taxi dispatch company that allows people to hail cabs using their smartphones, was cited by the city of Chicago this month with multiple ordinance violations, including allegedly charging riders a mandatory 20 percent gratuity. Chicago-based taxi and livery companies and passengers have also filed lawsuits against Uber, alleging that the company engaged in false price advertising, among other violations.

I asked Mohammad, a native of Pakistan who said he has been driving taxis in Chicago for seven years, if he minded accepting credit cards, which many cabbies grumble about even though the city of Chicago requires all taxis to take credit cards as payment.

"Credit card is the American way. Hailo pays me quickly," Mohammad replied. Not all cab companies do.

Hailo also pays drivers a 50-cent bonus for each trip. The money comes out of the $1.50 or $2.75 Hailo fee, Thompson said.

As the customer, I never had to remove my wallet from my pocket, which was one less thing to worry about as I exited the cab.

And I liked the Hailo app, when it finally found a cab for me.

As I walked into Tribune Tower, I received an email from Hailo that contained a copy of my bill.

Taxi users interested in giving Hailo a try can download the free iPhone or Android app at hailocab.com. A $10 discount is offered when you register. The discount is automatically applied to your first trip using Hailo. So my first ride cost $1.56.

Hailo operates in London, Dublin and Toronto. In addition to Chicago, the company also plans future service in Boston and New York, said Chris McLellan, Hailo's marketing director.

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.

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