Saturday, 25 July 2015

Taxi-ing to Another Level

Uber may be everyone's private driver, but taxi drivers' biggest nightmare
In many places around the world, the mobile car-hailing app Uber is not welcomed. On the day we arrived in Paris on June 25, taxi drivers went on strike protesting Uber, by blocking all roads to the airport with their vehicles.

While the Parisians just shrugged, as strikes are a normal occurrence, the rest of us had to schlepp our luggage to from the airport to the commuter train to get into town.

New York City recently temporarily gave up trying to cap the number of Uber vehicles in the Big Apple for a four-month trial period, while in Hong Kong, taxi drivers are kicking up a fuss.

Taxi drivers smashing one of their own vehicles for attention
They even protested by smashing a red cab on Friday with sledgehammers. Why they damaged one of their own vehicles is beyond me, but maybe they were so angry they only saw red?

The drivers say they have lost 20 percent in revenue since the introduction of mobile apps in Hong Kong and are calling for the government to clamp down on car-hailing apps like Uber, as those drivers may not be properly licensed with a hire-car permit.

But what about the cab drivers themselves? Some have their dashboards lined up with mobile phones to take calls from clients who want a ride at a specific time of day and place for a slightly cheaper rate. Isn't what they are doing very similar to Uber?

Except with Uber, you can rate your driver and if there's a problem, there's remedial action taken. And also they take credit card payment, something standard in places like New York City.

My uncle told me he and his friend dined in a restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui and afterwards his friend used Uber for the first time to get a ride home. To his astonishment, a red taxi showed up within five minutes. Sounds like the taxi driver wants the best of both worlds.

Many expatriates -- a large number of them take taxis daily -- are happy to see Uber here. They are tired of drivers having a cigarette smoke smell in the car, or putting up with the seemingly arrogant attitude, or late at night choosing their customers by only rolling down their windows to see how far potential customers need to go.

While there are 50,000 red taxis here, is there room for Uber?
In areas like Lan Kwai Fong after the MTR is closed, some taxis will prowl the area and demand at least HK$200 per ride, even if it's five minutes away. Not enough people complain to the police or they find it too much of a hassle to file a report, and so the authorities don't realize this is a serious problem.

Hence Uber is a godsend for many as an alternative to the apparently 50,000 taxis in the city, who all aren't available at 4pm because the drivers are changing shifts.

Another car-hailing app called Call4van fills a need for those who have some goods to carry, but don't fit in the space of a taxi or have more passengers or luggage.

Therefore many people here don't have much sympathy for taxi drivers, even though they need to shell out some HK$7 million for a license, the equivalent of a two-bedroom flat.

I don't take taxis very often, as the vast majority of the places I go to are accessible by public transport. When I do take taxis, some are very chatty, others are busy counting their money at the red light. When I have to go to a place I'm not familiar with at all, some are very helpful, and I'm grateful they know their way around so easily.

But these drivers, many in their 50s and 60s, don't get the fuss with Uber. However, if the service is cutting into their profits, then perhaps they should stop being so picky and be the dependable service they used to be.

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