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New service helps Seattle taxi company battle upstart challengers like Uber, Lyft

Flywheel, an app and service newly-launched in Seattle, let's you hail a cab directly from your smartphone, and shows you the nearest cab and its eta. (Flywheel image)

The Seattle-area’s taxi industry has taken a big hit as upstart car sharing and for-hire ride services like Uber and Lyft eat into the business. But a new company is helping at least one local taxi firm fight fire with fire.

San-Francisco based Flywheel officially launched last week in Seattle. Much like the newfangled car services, it allows people to hail a ride directly via an app on their smartphones (iOS and Android. Sorry Windows Phone users.) What makes it different is rather than using driver’s personal cars or for-hire town cars and other vehicles, Flywheel has partnered with Seattle-area cab company East Side for Hire.

Many riders have fled taxis for the other services over issues like unreliability, cleanliness and quality of cars. But Flywheel CEO Steven Humphreys says the company thoroughly vets its partners and only works with fleets that meet Flywheel’s strict standards.

“First we go in and train every driver, one at a time, and talk to them about the quality of service that they need to provide,” Humphreys says.

The company then registers each of the drivers in its system, allowing riders to rank each ride.

“As soon as a driver is rated anything other than four stars we follow up with them. And in fact, 95 percent of our rides are four or five stars and
over two-thirds of them are five stars straight up,” he says.

While Humphreys is quick to acknowledge there are plenty of bad cabbies and cars on the road, he says there are far more good ones, and Flywheel ensures only the best are part of the service. And he says many drivers have never improved because they’ve never gotten feedback before, since most riders who have a bad experience simply avoid the company in the future.

“By providing feedback, it allows a fleet to provide hundreds of good drivers. Basically what you get is this straightforward feedback loop,” he says.

The app is simple to use. Once you log on, you can see all the available cars around you and an estimated time of arrival, eliminating the common complaint of seemingly endless waits after calling a cab. With your credit card on file, the transaction is automatically processes at the end of your ride.

But for those who’ve given up on taxis in favor of other services, why would they bother giving the new service a try? Humphreys says cost is a big reason. East Side for Hire offers customers flat rates calculated by pickup and drop-off zip code, and is significantly less expensive than competitors.

“The average Eastside for Hire fare from downtown Seattle to the airport is $29, a regular metered taxi about $39, Uber $49,” he says.

Many have come to enjoy the communal aspect and personalized service of other options Lyft, where you can request specific drivers and get to know them.

But Humphreys points out those drivers aren’t professionals, use their own cars and while friendly, don’t have the experience to consistently get you around safely and dependably.

“They don’t necessarily know their way around the city, they especially don’t know traffic patterns when there’s a game in town or rush hour or something else.”

A recent study by the city of Seattle determined there was a need and desire for more for-hire transportation options around the area. The Seattle City Council is currently considering new regulations for the upstarts in the face of growing criticism from the licensed taxi industry. And Humphreys says with East Side for Hire equipping over 260 cars and drivers with Flywheel, the new offering is an efficient way to leverage technology without adding more cars and congestion to the road.

The company is offering a $20 credit for those interested in giving it a shot. Just enter the promo code “SeattleRW” to receive the free credits.

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