Cab commission seeks vendor for app linking all St. Louis taxis

The St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission is moving forward with plans to introduce a ride-hailing app linking all taxis in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County.

The commission, which voted Sept. 20 to advance with putting an app into place, anticipates the app will allow passengers to select the closest taxi or one from a certain taxi company.

Ron Klein, the commission’s executive director, presented a request for qualification to the commission Dec. 20, and the commission is now accepting proposals from prospective vendors. The request for qualification lays out the specific criteria vendors must meet. As vendors respond, the commission will examine whether the companies meet the requirements, Klein said.

Once the commission has verified the eligibility of the vendors, Klein will put forth a request for proposal, to which the qualifying vendors can respond. The commission then will make a final decision on which company to use.

While the request for qualification is open, the commission will host a public meeting in January to gather input from the community and other stakeholders about features the app should include.

“The taxi commission’s main focus is safety and security, and we also must listen to the people we serve,” Klein said. “The one thing I would like to see is a panic button for the passenger that would send them directly to 911 and identify the cab the passenger is riding in.”

The idea for an app arose as a way for area cabs to help better meet passengers’ expectations.

“Traditional ways like dialing the phone, street hailing and cab stands are becoming less important to today’s passengers,” Klein said.

Ten of St. Louis’ 13 cab companies offer their own ride-hailing apps, but Klein said he believes each cab company having its own app is excessive.

“In focus group discussions, it was determined that the occasional users of taxis do not have a preferred company,” he said. “They want the closest taxi, and they also prefer ETAs.”

When the commission initially voted to put an app into operation, they had expected to have the app ready to go by New Year’s Eve. But Klein said they soon realized this deadline would not be realistic as the commission encountered concerns related to data ownership and customer privacy issues.

Prospective vendors

Since September, six companies have expressed interest in providing a ride-hailing app for the cab commission. These have ranged from businesses with a national presence to entrepreneurs based in the St. Louis area.

One of the nationwide companies that have reached out to the commission is Cab Hound, based out of Asheville, North Carolina. The business already provides a passenger app and cloud-based dispatching platform for cab companies from New York City to Atlanta.

Cab Hound’s app offers standard ride-hailing app features, such as showing the GPS location of taxis, the ability to select from different vehicle sizes for a trip and the option to pay through the app using a saved credit card. Passengers also have the option to pay with cash or with their credit card using the taxi’s card reader.

But Greg Bauernfeind, Cab Hound’s vice president of business development, said his company’s app differs from others because of built-in driver evaluation algorithms, which rate drivers according to feedback from passengers, reliability, and whether they are on time for pick-ups.

“Drivers earn badges based on their ratings in each category, and when they are selecting a nearby cab driver on the app, passengers can evaluate and choose the very best drivers available to them through badges drivers have earned,” Bauernfeind said.

The app also allows passengers to save a driver as a favorite; offers a panic button in case passengers feel unsafe; and features a “Green Your Ride” option that enables riders to add a few cents to their fare to contribute to Cab Hound’s carbon offset credits program.

Cab Hound’s ride-hailing app includes a panic button for passengers who feel unsafe. | Image courtesy of Cab Hound

In addition to the passenger app, Cab Hound supplies a digital dispatching platform that allows cab companies to provide the modern tracking benefits of a ride-hailing app to passengers who do not use the Cab Hound app. When customers call a participating cab company to ask for a ride, the business can offer lists of and estimated arrival times of available vehicles and can share links to maps showing assigned drivers’ locations. The platform sends these passengers notifications when their drivers have arrived as well.

Cab Hound first became interested in providing an app for the St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission shortly after the commission decided to move forward with plans for a ride-hailing app. Bauernfeind said his company and Klein have engaged in two phone conversations, including a demo of the Cab Hound app.

Before the request for qualifications was issued, Bauernfeind said he felt confident that Cab Hound would respond to the commission’s request.

“We have experience with what features cab companies in other cities want to see included in an app,” Bauernfeind said. “From our conversations, I can tell that Ron Klein wants to provide an app for St. Louis citizens that offers the simplicity of e-hailing while still connecting passengers with the best cab drivers in the area.”

Native St. Louisians Imani Butler and Cory Spielberg of MUVET also have contacted Klein about creating an app for the cab commission. MUVET is an app that connects people who need an item moved from one place to another with independent contractors who can move it.

Although Butler and Spielberg have not designed a ride-hailing app before, they feel that MUVET’s features align with those the commission desires for its app.

“Our app is an on-demand app, so we allow people to connect seamlessly in an immediate fashion,” Butler said. “That is what we would bring to the table in terms of connecting riders with cabs.”

Butler and Spielberg first reached out to Klein in early October about possibly submitting an app design proposal. Since then, they have conducted research on what features both passengers and cab drivers would like to see in the commission’s app.

“We have talked to cab riders who are waiting for cabs outside popular places, like the airport, restaurants, bars, hotels and business parks,” Spielberg said. “We also have talked to cab drivers who visit these venues frequently.”

Spielberg said before the request for qualifications was issued that he and Butler could combine the results from their research with some of the fundamental features of MUVET to construct a ride-hailing app that would satisfy the commission and St. Louis cab passengers.

Taxi apps in other cities

Cities including New York, Chicago and Houston already have apps connecting all of their local taxis, but these apps have drawn some questions and criticism.

Evan Rawley, a management professor at the Columbia Business School in New York, said New York’s “Way to Ride” app has experienced difficulty attracting users and being respected by cab drivers.

“Consumers are interested in using an app only if there are a lot of drivers on the system, and drivers are interested only if there are a lot of people on the system,” Rawley said. “Now, we have a chicken-or-the-egg-type problem because consumers say drivers never show up when they use the app, and drivers say they will not use it because not many consumers use it.”

One key obstacle the New York’s app has encountered is that drivers prefer picking up a passenger who has hailed them on the street instead of having to respond to a request through an app.

“The problem in New York is that taxi drivers respond to the dispatches they receive through the app, but on their way to pick up the passenger, they see a street hail and pick up that person instead,” Rawley said. “Taxi companies in New York need to ensure drivers will respond to the dispatch they have been assigned through the app by giving them incentives to respond to the dispatch and by punishing them if they do not follow through.”

But Rawley said a ride-hailing app linking all local taxis might experience more success in St. Louis than in New York.

“One thing that helps in a city like St. Louis is that there probably are not that many street hails, and there is less incentive for a driver to stray away from the app’s dispatching system,” he said. “If the vendor for the St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission’s app has dedicated people who will work closely with the taxi companies, an app might work there.”

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