A New York taxi-app contender thinks it knows a shortcut

Woman hails a cab in midtown, the old-fashioned way. (modenadude via Flickr)
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In March, New York City announced it was looking for a new app, one that would allow taxi riders to pay by smartphone, find people with whom to share rides, and maybe even alert passengers to available cabs.

That last one is a tricky proposition. While apps designed to connect riders with cabs have begun to flood the market, New York City's idiosyncratic taxi laws forbid yellow cab drivers from arranging rides with passengers ahead of time. That remains the sole purview of the livery car industry, which, unlike yellow cabs, typically operate in the outer boroughs.

So the question is, if a rider pulls up an app, requests a cab, and then a taxi driver accepts that request, confirms acceptance and heads toward the hail, does that constitute a digital street hail (legal) or a prearranged request for service by phone (illegal)?

That's put some app developers in a quandary. But GetTaxi, a company which is vying to break into the New York market, thinks it has found a way around the question by facilitating deals without consummating them. 

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Essentially, its app works as a taxi barometer.

A would-be rider pulls up GetTaxi and, using its "Taxi Availability Index," finds out how many cabs are available in the vicinity. If the index indicates there are lots of free taxis around, the app will recommend the rider go outside and just hail one the old-fashioned way. (Taxis will have devices inside emitting that sort of information.)

If it's rush hour and rainy, the index will recommend ordering a livery car instead (via the app, which has that capability, too).

When the conditions fall somewhere in between, the user can send out a beacon of sorts. Cabs in the neighborhood will see that beacon and can respond if they want to.

On the app, the user will be able to locate the available taxis in the area, and note which, if any, are heading in her direction.

If the driver sees a woman lugging suitcases and presumes she's in need of a ride to JFK, meaning a higher fare, he can pick her up instead, no prearranged contract broken.

(GetTaxi is also exploring something that entails more of a commitment from the driver, like Hailo. That's assuming the city ever changes or at least clarifies its rules.)

The app's proposed smartphone payment methods—the main goal of the city's March request for proposals—would allow riders to pay with third-party payment providers like PayPal, Dwolla, a prepaid GetTaxi card, or even a GetTaxi family plan.

GetTaxi is also in what it describes as an "advanced partner discussion" with HopStop, allowing travelers, theoretically, to plan a multi-modal trip from start to finish.

The company has about $30 million in funding and is operational in Russia, the United Kingdom and Israel. About 400,000 people have installed the GetTaxi app worldwide thus far.

The Taxi and Limousine Commission is expected to select the winner in November, at the earliest.