Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

Taxi Magic is an online service and mobile app that lets you easily request a taxi around much of the region (and nation). I tried it for the first time this weekend, and found the technology very smooth, though sadly the taxi driver who arrived wasn’t nearly so high-quality.

Taxi Magic has apps for most smartphones, or you can send a text message or book on the Web. I used the Android app. It first lets you select from their participating providers: Yellow Cab in DC, Red Top in Arlington, Barwood in Montgomery County, and Alexandria Yellow Cab.

You enter a time and location, then get a notification when the taxi is on the way, and can even track it via the mobile app. I used Yellow Cab and also got telephone calls from them directly about the cab. After the ride, you can pay via a credit card using the app as well.

Using the app to request a cab is free, except for whatever fee the locality lets taxis charge for all dispatched trips, which is $2 in DC. If you want to pay by credit card through the system, there’s a $1.50 “documentation fee.”

This takes a lot of the hassle out of requesting dispatch taxis. Often, you never know if the taxi is coming, and if it’s late, have to call a dispatch center and wait on hold for a long time. There’s no need to carry a lot of cash or stop at an ATM if you realize at the end of the trip you don’t have enough. It can be even more useful for travelers, who don’t necessarily know the phone number of a local taxi company.

I’d use it again, but for the next airport trip, might try an Arlington company (which can pick up in DC to go to National). I’d most prefer EnviroCab, which uses all-hybrid vehicles, but they’re not on the Taxi Magic network (yet, at least). I actually called EnviroCab first, but they were all booked.

My Yellow Cab driver turned out to be one of the worst I’ve had in a while. As we were passing through downtown, he asked if I was going to pay cash or credit card; when I said I was using the app, he announced he wanted to transfer us to another Yellow Cab, and turned off the route to go past a hotel where one was waiting. I refused and insisted he take us to the airport, as he is required to do.

He also answered 3 phone calls during the short 15-minute ride. After he answered the second, I asked him politely to please not talk on the phone during the trip. He started angrily shouting that he didn’t place the call, but it came, in, and he “had to” answer the phone.

He also said that no law prohibited it. When I tried to calmly note that, in fact, DC law does forbid talking on a handheld phone while driving, he went on a long rant about how he’s a “family man” and has no choice about answering the phone. Given that the 1st and 3rd phone calls involved him telling someone his current location, I suspect they weren’t calls from his family, but either way, it wasn’t appropriate.

He was holding the phone in one hand and the steering wheel in another as he turned from the 14th Street Bridge onto the GW Parkway along the tight turning ramps, and I really worried he would hit something or another car as he merged.

There’s not a lot one can do to avoid taxi drivers who shout at you if you ask them to drive safely, except report it to the taxi company and the Taxi Commission, which I will do. One helpful side effect of using Taxi Magic is that it lists the taxi number on the app and in the confirmation emails, so even if you forget to get the car number, you have it for a report.

As for his attempt at getting me out of the cab because I wasn’t going to pay cash, that’s something cab companies and Taxi Magic will have to work on with drivers. Other cities like New York encountered some initial resistance from drivers about taking credit cards.

Presumably, one of the reasons cab companies might want to participate in Taxi Magic is to get the extra dispatch calls it would bring in over their competitors. If a company wants that business, it needs to make sure its drivers won’t then resist what comes with it. I wasn’t a regular Yellow Cab customer before (and this didn’t make me one); they wouldn’t have gotten this fare except for Taxi Magic.

What has been your experience with taxi drivers and credit cards? Have you used this or another smartphone tool for getting taxis?

Tagged: taxis, technology

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.