Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Getting Hong Kong to Uber-ize

Uber is ready to serve customers who are willing to pay more for good service
Uber is forcing governments around the world to figure out how this car-hailing app can fit into their societies, but not without backlash.

In Hong Kong, the firm's offices in Sheung Wan were raided several days ago and three staff were arrested along with seven Uber drivers.

The ironic thing is that Uber was supported by InvestHK, a government arm that helps businesses set up shop in Hong Kong easily, in some cases offering promotional services and introduction to contacts, as long as the business fits into one of six areas like creative industries, financial services, innovation and technology, and information and communications technology.

Many complain about Hong Kong taxi drivers' bad habits
Uber was even promoted on the InvestHK website up until the day of the arrests which must have been an awkward U-turn for the government.

But why all of a sudden these arrests? Technically Uber drivers do not have licenses to carry strangers in their own cars. And what if there's an accident? Who takes responsibility?

This is what the taxi driver associations are angry about, because they are paying around HK$7 million each for their licenses while these Uber drivers are not.

However, upon hearing about the arrests, there was an online petition that garnered 50,000 signatures supporting Uber, and lots of comments in local newspapers from residents tired of putting up with cab drivers who refuse to pick up passengers, smell lingering cigarette smoke, charge exorbitant fees late at night, and so on.

Surely there is room for two services, one of which people need to pay more for better service? Some customers like to be picked up in a Mercedes, others just want to ensure they have a ride after a concert where thousands of people are waiting in line for a taxi.

Uber North Asia general manager Sam Gellman is keen to sit down with the government to hash out some kind of agreement.

Uber's Sam Gellman keen to work with the government
"A smart city must have smart regulations fit for a digital age, and we look forward to working closely with regulators towards developing a regulatory approach that enables more choice and innovation while putting the safety and interests of riders and drivers first," he says.

The Hong Kong government, via Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung, says there should be "legal space" for Uber to continue to operate in the city.

Gellman says safety is a top priority for the taxi-hailing app, which is why the drivers go through an extensive background check and every ride is covered by insurance.

He seems optimistic something will be worked out in the end for Hong Kong, citing the successful adaptation of Uber into transportation regulations and licensing schemes in 54 jurisdictions in the United States, Mexico City and the Philippines.

Yuen says the Justice Department has yet to lay charges on the Uber staff and drivers, as the police are still investigating... but shouldn't the government have done its due diligence work on Uber before allowing it into the city? Seems strange for it to investigate one of its star clients...

Nevertheless, the fight between Uber and Hong Kong taxi drivers continues and public opinion seems to side with the former.

I have yet to try the service, and have heard about some hits and misses, but overall seems like it wouldn't hurt to drive a little competition in Hong Kong -- isn't that what this city is about -- choice?

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