The popular belief is that taxi drivers in Hong Kong are a relieved lot following the end of the street blockades by pro-democracy activists. But the truth, as it turns out, is not so simple. Quite a few operators are, in fact, looking back on the 79-day Occupy campaign with fond memories.
Of course, one cannot deny that several taxi drivers were affected by the civil disobedience campaign. According to an estimate from transport authorities, overall passenger load fell 3.8 percent to 28.9 million in October from the previous month.
That said, some taxi drivers actually enjoyed more business as people took longer alternate routes to reach their destinations. Demand also rose as some school buses, mini-buses, trams and some other regular city transport suspended services through the protest areas.
Meanwhile, less traffic congestion allowed the taxi drivers to operate more efficiently, serving more passengers including the night-shift Occupy protesters.
Now, let us compare this with the current situation. After the police dismantled the street camps and cleared the roads, pro-democracy activists have vowed to continue their protests through other means. Informal congregations and blockage of passageways in shopping areas is one such route.
To curb such activities, police have been kept an eye out for “gouwu” participants and are stopping potential suspects. The tight vigil and random checks have, meanwhile, deterred some genuine shoppers, affecting transport ridership. People just aren’t in a mood to be accosted by a police officer and be questioned about their intentions.
In the latest statistic being bandied about, the number of people who joined the New Year’s Eve countdown along the waterfront on both sides of the Victoria Harbour is said to have fallen to 294,000, down from 380,000 a year ago and marking the lowest turnout in five years.
In this situation, how can the taxi drivers be happy?
Other headwinds facing the operators include loss of business due to the newly-opened West Island rail line and a potential 10-percent increase in taxi fares.
Hong Kong taxis, which are among the world’s best in terms of the quality-price ratio, may see a 10 percent hike in the flagfall fare to HK$24, and charge HK$1.7 per every 200 meters after the first two kilometers, later this year.
That will be the second fare hike after the government approved a hike in the minimum fare to HK$22, from HK$20, in September 2013.
The fare hikes are far above the local inflation, but the taxi drivers are not smiling. The main reason: the rate hike would also mean higher car rentals, which take away most, if not all, all of the incremental gains.
That is why a taxi driver association has suggested that the drivers be allowed to keep two thirds of the incremental income from the increase. Another taxi association said the owners are looking again to reap windfall gain from lower gas costs, thanks to the oil price collapse in recent months.
All told, taxi drivers get the least benefit in the supply chain, contributing more to their owners rather than to the industry.
Simply put, all additional profit generated from the fare hike is likely to be pocked by the taxi owners while the drivers could see reduced tips from passengers. Thus, how can you expect them to be happy?
I have always had a soft corner for taxi drivers, who spend over 10 hours daily on the job but face uncertain income and potential traffic risks. The drivers also confront other problems, including the lack of washrooms at gas stations.
While facing problems, the poor taxi driver however will have to deal with the ire of passengers who have to shell out more for their rides even as oil prices have crashed to multi-year lows.
What can we do to help? Here’s a simple suggestion from yours truly: give at least $5 tip to the taxi driver, just as we show our gratitude to a restaurant waiter who has given us good service. That will ensure that the taxi driver can at least smile.
In addition, oppose any taxi fare hike, and any move by the owners to collect extra from the taxi drivers. Taxi owners have been making huge profits for too long by sitting on their licenses without adding any creative spark to their businesses.
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