The Uber mobile phone public transport app in use in Dublin. Picture date: Saturday May 31, 2014. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Durban - I’m a big fan of apps that take life’s chores and make them easier, cheaper and even fun. Until recently, catching a taxi had to rank near the bottom of things on my bucket list. Forking over large sums of money for the privilege of riding in a grubby car you had to book by making an actual telephone call wasn’t my idea of fun.

But then along came Uber, the startup that’s raising the ire of taxi companies around the world by allowing ordinary plebs like you and me to book a private driver using a slick smartphone app. Not only is the system cashless – you load your credit card details into the app upon sign-up – but you get to monitor your driver’s progress in real time on a map while you wait for your ride to arrive in the form of a Mercedes, Audi or BMW.

If there was one criticism I had it was that Uber didn’t exactly tick the “cheaper” box. Granted, you got to feel like a VIP sitting in the back of a swanky sedan with your own personal chauffeur, all for around the same price as you’d cough up for a skanky old-fashioned cab. But R420 from the Durban city centre to the airport and as much as R90 from UKZN to Florida Road wasn’t bargain basement stuff.

That’s all changed now. On Thursday Uber gladdened the hearts of cheapskates like me with the launch of its budget uberX offering in Durban – a service that’s already proving wildly popular in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

It works the same way as the pricier UberBLACK service. Request a ride using the application and you’re still able to see their driver’s photo, name and registration before you get in the car. You’ll also still have access to a live GPS-enabled map throughout their journey so you can let your mates or date know when you’re likely to arrive.

The two big differences are the cars you’ll get to ride in and the price you’ll pay. Instead of luxury sedans you’ll be picked up in a Toyota Corolla or Avanza. The slight downgrade is worth it in my book for the fare saving. Take the two rides I mentioned above. With uberX the CBD to airport trip will cost between R220 and R300 and UKZN to Florida Road will set you back between R50 and R75.

If you’re insured with Discovery Insure it’s even cheaper. Members receive a 25 percent upfront discount on Uber trips. In addition, clients who pay for their trip with a Discovery card receive a cashback of up to an additional 20 percent of the net spend. And should a Discovery Insure client with a valid claim be injured in an accident and unable to drive, they can opt to waive their car hire benefit in exchange for Uber personal driver services of up to R5 000.

While taxi companies aren’t likely to welcome the competition, Uber believes its new offering is good for consumers and, ultimately, for drivers. Uber’s South African General Manager, Alon Lits, says a big part of its local strategy is to promote entrepreneurship and job creation.

“Traditionally the metered taxi industry is one where drivers are salaried employees working specified shifts, without much freedom or flexibility. We partner with hundreds of independent business owners, who now have the flexibility to work as much and whenever they want. Drivers make far more, and with greater flexibility, than any other option available to them,” says Lits.

Ironically, the launch came in a week when drivers from at least one local taxi company were on strike for higher pay. I know this because my parents were returning from a holiday in Cape Town and tried unsuccessfully to book an airport transfer from them. Sadly, the launch of uberX came one day too late to help them

Sunday Tribune