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.

CHICAGO

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