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Innovation economy

Put these ride-sharing services to the test

For people looking for a ride, there are now several options. The new services encourage Bostonians to give them a spin.

Aram Boghosian for the Boston Globe file 2009

For people looking for a ride, there are now several options. The new services encourage Bostonians to give them a spin.

I have been ignoring that warning that our parents drilled into each of us when we were young: Do not get into an unmarked car driven by a stranger.

I have done it in Kendall Square and downtown Boston, in front of my house, and at San Francisco International Airport. And I have lived to tell the tale.

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Many Bostonians are aware of Uber, the mobile app that summons a range of vehicles and allows you to pay with a click, using a credit card it keeps on file. But last month, two new transportation services began operating in Boston. SideCar and Lyft invite anyone with a clean driving record to become a part-time chauffeur, using his or her own vehicle.

Together, the three California start-ups have raised about $140 million — and all of them have run afoul of various city and state regulatory agencies that oversee taxis and livery services.

But rather than delve into the controversies that could shut down the services, or just make them more expensive, I’ve been sampling them as a consumer. Many have been offering free rides, or $10 credits, to encourage Bostonians to give them a spin. Here’s what I found.

Uber. The Uber mobile app saves my bacon about once a week. Last Monday, the Green Line abruptly stopped running at Kenmore Square, so I surfaced and opened the app. It helped me grab a taxi that was waiting less than half a block away and ferried me to my morning appointment on time.

Uber gives you a range of options, from least expensive (yellow cab) to most (a large SUV.) When you open the Uber app, it shows you the estimated wait time for each option. I tend to use a vehicle class called UberX, which frequently offers late-model Japanese-made sedans with decent shocks, allowing me to work on my laptop comfortably. The minimum fare for UberX travel is $10, and a recent ride from Downtown Crossing to Kendall Square was $16.

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My only negative experience with Uber came when I was running late earlier this month and requested a ride. The driver who accepted called to confirm my address, but it turned out he hadn’t left his house yet. I cancelled.

But when I went to the street to hunt for a cab and found none, I used the app again to summon a taxi, which got me to my destination only a few minutes late.

So far, almost everyone who drives for Uber is a licensed taxi or livery driver, but the company has experimented with some Average Joes as drivers, says chief executive Travis Kalanick.

Lyft. The people who drive for Lyft and SideCar are just regular folks earning a bit of extra scratch in their free time. The difference between them and me, however, is the interiors of their cars tend to be immaculate.

On a busy street, Lyft vehicles are easy to spot: They have a pink fuzzy mustache affixed to the front grille.

On a Lyft ride from the Back Bay to South Boston this month, the estimated arrival time was off — six minutes turned out to be 12 — but my driver called first to get specific information about where I was waiting.

When the ride is over, a message pops up on your phone asking you to rate your driver on a scale of one to five stars, and make a donation using a credit card you’ve stored. The app suggests an amount, which you are free to adjust up or down. (Riders also get ratings from drivers.)

SideCar. SideCar seems to have fewer drivers on the road than Lyft in these early days, but the experience is pretty similar. Drivers are friendly and generally want to chat. They’re happy to either set the GPS or take directions from you. It feels like you’re expected to sit in the front seat, rather than slide into the back.

Unlike Uber and Lyft, however, SideCar’s app asks you to input your destination as well as your pick-up location.

Over all, Lyft and SideCar provide cheaper transportation options for riders, but Uber vehicles outnumber the Lyft and SideCar “fleets” — at least for the moment.

And either the Uber app is better at estimating the driver’s arrival time, or Uber drivers are better at finding where a rider is waiting, or both.

All three apps can sometimes convey information about your location that’s slightly off. But you can watch the car’s progress on a map, so if the driver seems to be meandering, it’s a good idea to phone with your precise address. (The apps all let you do that with the click of a button.)

All three companies have faced lawsuits and fines — two Boston taxi companies filed suit against Uber in March — and the city of Austin, Texas, threatened to arrest SideCar drivers earlier this year.

So it remains to be seen whether the three services will be around for the long haul, at least in their current incarnations.

Uber chief executive Kalanick notes that the taxi and limo industries “haven’t changed very much in decades.

They have lobbied to keep things the same, and that has been to their benefit, but to the detriment of consumers and drivers.”

Over the course of more than 20 rides using the three services — the majority with Uber — I have yet to catch a ride with anyone who made me feel uneasy, or seemed to be trying to pad the fare.

But one Lyft driver last week, a computer science student named Christopher, did have a sign on his glove box spelling out his policies, one of which would have worried my parents.

In addition to offering to play the rider’s music on his stereo, or charge a mobile phone, the sign said:

“I have candy. Let me know if you would like some.”

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.

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