The good and bad of Uber in Bangkok

Uber, the global peer-to-peer taxi service, has become pretty popular in Bangkok. It started operating in Thailand in 2014. While Bangkok taxis are super cheap, they have some problems. Often drivers will refuse to run the meter, instead negotiating higher prices. And many will refuse to take passengers if they don’t like your destination. Both of these actions are illegal, but they’re pretty common. A further problem for non-Thai-speaking tourists is that most taxi drivers don’t speak English, and many don’t seem to be able to read a destination on a map. So it can be really hard to communicate your destination if it’s not one of the major tourist spots.

Traffic in Bangkok is generally bad between 6am and 10pm

On a recent trip to Bangkok I had the opportunity to use both taxis and Uber quite a lot. I was staying a far from downtown. And there wasn’t public transit within walking distance. Although traffic in Bangkok is really bad, it was still often faster to take a taxi/Uber directly to my destination than taking it to the ferry or metro station.

I had multiple experiences with taxi drivers being unable to understand my destination, even with it written in Thai in large letters on a piece of paper. I also had several taxi drivers refuse to take me when they figured out the destinations (both within the center of the city and back out to the house swap apartment where I was staying).

Uber drivers, on the other hand, quickly accepted ride requests. And of course they never needed to ask me where I was going. For pickup at my apartment it often took them 20 minutes or more to get there. And if they missed the turn it could be another 10 or more minutes to get back to it. But only once did someone cancel a ride, and he really messed up getting to me. Uber drivers were universally polite, and most followed the driving directions on the app, which probably helped avoid some traffic.

On the question of pricing, I concluded that when Uber was not having surge pricing it was pretty comparable to the taxi rate. But surge pricing is common (most of the time it seemed to be surge pricing), and during that time Uber is definitely more expensive than taxis. This means that instead of paying $3 for a ride that takes 30 minutes you might spend $6.

With all the traffic, I actually felt bad about how little money the Uber and taxi drivers were earning, even during surge time. For instance, one evening we got picked up downtown after dinner. It took the driver about 15 minutes to get to us. We then sat in traffic for about an hour before he got us home. That put him in an area where he wasn’t likely to get a nearby ride. So he drove at least an hour and a half for $6.

That evening we could have taken the ferry home and gotten back much quicker. Ferries run frequently, but during rush hour they are certain to be packed and hard to even get standing room. And that would also have required convincing a taxi to take us from the ferry station to the apartment. Something we’d had a hard time doing previously.  We were prepared to sit in traffic. We were in a comfy car with AC. And we weren’t in a hurry.

In a concession to the taxi industry in Bangkok, Uber incorporated taxis into their app. They are the “Uber Flash” option. If you select Uber Flash you get a taxi as your car. The pricing was always the same as a regular Uber. I only used Uber Flash once. It was raining hard and we were at Chatuchak market on a Saturday evening. There were tons of people trying to get taxis with no luck. Every car was full. Uber had no cars available but they did have Uber flash, at a high surge price. With no other options we were happy to take the flash. The taxi driver pulled up and was immediately swamped by people trying to get him to take them as riders. But he turned everyone away, waiting patiently for us to get to his car. I’m sure the rate he was earning with Uber Flash (still only about $7 for a 30 minute ride) was at least 3x what he could get with the taxi meter.

Apparently peer-to-peer taxis aren’t supported by legal regulations in Thailand. So Uber has initiated a petition to try to change this. Regardless, I think Uber is indispensable for foreigners traveling to Bangkok.

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