MANCHESTER, England — When you’ve been driving cabs around a city for three decades, you get to know a lot about it.
Just ask John Consterdine.
You probably won’t actually have to ask him. He’ll just cheerfully jump into the story about how, while he waited during all those years to pick up fares outside Manchester’s Piccadilly train station, “rather than sit there and count the bricks, I had books with me. I’d get out a book and look at the architecture.”
And when he shared the resulting knowledge with his passengers, Consterdine will tell you, “People would say to me, ‘Oh, can you tell me a little bit more?’ It had a great effect on the level of gratuities.”
So when the rideshare company Uber (he pronounces it “YOO-ber”) came to Manchester, Consterdine had a backup plan: In addition to driving his iconic black taxi for the usual fares, he uses it to take visitors around on guided tours.
“You want to really be with someone who knows about the city, don’t you? Who knows a little bit more than the Average Joe,” he said.
So much, in fact, does Consterdine know about Manchester that TripAdvisor lists him as its second-highest-rated tour guide here. He’s won the Manchester Tourism Star award, and was a finalist for the national Tourism Superstar honor.
He’s even had his devotion to Manchester memorialized on his shoulder by his friend Lou Molloy — David Beckham’s tattoo artist, who lives hear here — in a tattoo that includes some of the many firsts for which this city takes credit: the first street lights, the first public library, the splitting of the atom.
The reservoir of information cabbies such as Consterdine amass in their jobs is one of the ways they’re battling, worldwide, against the likes of Lyft and Uber, in a bid to lure back travelers who value that experience.
“I have a great passion for Manchester,” Consterdine said. “But you work for money. If you can turn a £5 job into an £8 job just by speaking to someone, that’s good business, isn’t it?”
In other places, taxi fleets have gone all-electric, or launched Uber-style apps themselves, offering passengers the chance to take advantage of off-peak discounts, or see on their phones how far away a cab is. Some of these apps let users charge their rides to their saved credit cards, even if they hail a taxi on the street.
Taxi drivers have responded to the competition by not only focusing on their strengths — local knowledge foremost among them — but by trying to transform perceptions that helped fuel Lyft and Uber in the first place: that many cabbies are ill-mannered and extortionate.
“I’m not going to say that we were slipping on the customer service side, but competition changes behavior,” said Noah Rouen of Minneapolis’s Blue & White Metropolitan Taxi Service. “Certainly [drivers] have seen the drop in numbers of fares, and are responding accordingly. The customer experience is going to be a lot better.”
Blue & White has introduced a flashy app called Cruz that not only lets passengers book Uber-style, but gives them 25 percent off regular taxi fares. There’s also no surge pricing, which the ride-share companies charge at busy times.
“That’s a benefit for travelers, especially if they’re in town for some sort of an event, a concert, or we have the Super Bowl coming up,” said Rouen.
The ultimate advantage, though, he said: the drivers.
“We have drivers who have been doing this for 20-some years, so not only do they know how to get from Point A to Point B without staring at their GPS, but they know what restaurant to go to before the concert, or which club is hot, or here are the small theaters people like.”
If that’s not inducement enough, a new company in Montreal has introduced a fleet of all electric taxis, sparkling clean Nissan Leafs and Kia Souls in distinctive green and white — 1,000 of them by next year, if all goes according to plan. It also has a premium service using sleek black Teslas.
“Just being driven in an electric car is much more comfortable. It’s very quiet, a really pleasant experience,” said Jean Vachon, marketing director and a co-owner of the Montreal service, called Téo, for Transport Écologique Optimisé.
Téo is very different in one other way: Its drivers are employees, not independent contractors, and they get a retirement plan, paid vacation, and sick days, and training from a concierge at the Ritz.
“They’re proud to work with us, so they’re smiling, they greet their passengers with warm hellos. They are enthusiastic about offering this service, and it shows in the way they communicate with the client,” Vachon said. “What people remember is the human experience.”
More and newer technology doesn’t hurt either. Many city taxi companies have added Uber-style apps whose functions vary. There’s The Ride in 35 Canadian cities and towns; it doesn’t allow automatic payment of fares, and charges users $2 per trip, but also has a feature that compares the cost and length of a taxi ride with the same ride on public transportation. New York taxis, which collectively suffered a 10 percent drop in pickups last year, now have Arro and UberT, a taxi option in the Uber app itself. Most Seattle taxis offer booking apps; at least one, unlike Uber, lets passengers pay cash if they want.
In San Diego, the dominant Yellow Cab company has plastered the city with “Ride Yellow” devices that look like the Staples “Easy” button; equipped with smartphone technology, they let patrons at hotels, restaurants, and other places quickly hail cabs. There’s also a Ride Yellow app, with lower prices than the standard taxi fares, and drivers now hold open doors for passengers and give them nuts and bottled water.
One of the biggest players in new taxi apps is Flywheel, which California regulators have approved to replace meters.
“That’s what Uber was able to do — replace everything and give the drivers one smartphone — which made it just a more pleasurable experience,” said Oneal Bhambani, Flywheel’s president and CFO. “It’s stating the obvious, but the taxi industry didn’t have that. They had scale, but they lacked technology. Now they have technology to fight back and give the passenger a good experience.”
For users, Flywheel offers Uber-like features such as letting riders split fares and rate their drivers, encouraging better service. There are also some unique functions: Customers can name their own prices at slow times, hail taxis on the street but still pay through the app, and lure drivers to come and get them at busy periods by entering guaranteed tips. Flywheel even sends cabbies encouraging texts and e-mails, reminding them to be polite.
The app will launch soon in New York City. (Like Arro, it has its sights set on Boston for later in the year.)
While they’ve finally started offering convenience, deals, and discounts, taxis still have trouble matching Lyft and Uber on one all-important element: cost.
But John Consterdine, in Manchester, thinks they’re worth the price.
“You get a varied degree of knowledge from the people who drive the Uber cars,” he said. “What we can give you is insight.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at email@example.com.