For the disabled and the elderly, Hong Kong can be an unfriendly place. They don’t have many choices when it comes to their daily commutes.
The good news is SynCab, a new taxi which targets this segment of the population, will hit the road next month.
The taxi is spacious. A safe seat is specially designed for wheelchair users.
Wheelchair passengers can get into the cab through a ramp, avoiding the hassle of being moved in and out of wheelchairs.
Twenty SynCabs will go into service next month and another 30 will arrive in Hong Kong in May, according to operator Chung Shing Taxi.
The company hopes the figure will rise to 200 in the next few years.
The taxi company says the cab will offer first-class experience to passengers. They can enjoy free Wi-Fi and on-board USB charging facilities.
Lee Yuen-tai, the wheelchair-bound chairman of the Direction Association for the Handicapped, has high hopes for SynCab.
“As the electric wheelchair is not foldable, it is impossible for me to take an ordinary taxi. If we travel by private van, we are not covered by insurance as the law forbids us from doing so. The SynCab will definitely make our life easier,” Lee said.
Cheng Hak-wo, managing director of Chung Shing Taxi, hopes SynCab will encourage the disabled and the elderly to be more outgoing.
“It will be more convenient for the elderly to make hospital visits. The disabled can also go alone by taking the cab,” Cheng said.
It is not the first time Hong Kong has disabled-friendly cabs.
Diamond Cabs taxis made their debut five years ago. However, until now, there are only six such taxis.
Hong Kong has about 160,000 disabled people and 900,000 senior citizens more than 11 percent of whom are wheelchair users, according to government data.
If demand is that high, why is Diamond Cabs still such a small operation? Can SynCab actually be sustainable and profitable?
Doris Leung, chief executive of Diamond Cabs, said the cost of operating the taxis is extremely high compared with those for ordinary taxis.
Funding is another issue that keeps the company from expanding. It is run by a social enterprise — Social Ventures Hong Kong.
A Diamond Cabs taxi is a modified version of the seven-seater Toyota Noah, which sells for about HK$314,000 (US$40,500), 51 percent higher than the HK$200,000 Toyota Crown, the most popular taxi model.
On the other hand, SynCab, which is converted from the Nissan NV200, costs only HK$280,000.
Diamond Cabs taxis are powered by gasoline but SynCab runs on a hybrid of gasoline and liquefied petroleum gas.
The minimum charge for a Diamond Cabs taxi is HK$115, much higher than an ordinary taxi.
A Diamond ride costs HK$180 on average, according to the group. Most passengers find it inconvenient as they have to book the car in advance, sometimes up to a month.
Meanwhile, SynCab only charges the meter rate, which starts at HK$22. However, passengers pay a booking fee of HK$60 if they call the taxi through SynCab’s app or by phone in advance.
Because of the larger fleet, the waiting time for a SynCab can be as short as 10 to 15 minutes, shorter than the wait for a Diamond taxi.
Cheng said the total cost of launching a new SynCab is HK$100,000 higher than a normal taxi. SynCab’s rent will be higher as a result. Taxi drivers need to pay about HK$500 for a day shift compared with HK$470 for other taxis.
To attract drivers to rent SynCab, Cheng said the company will ensure the drivers earn HK$800 per shift by subsidizing them in the initial stage.
Drivers will also receive basic training on how to operate the taxi and how to handle emergencies, such as what to do if a passenger is taken ill.
Although Diamond Cabs is not making a large profit, it is self-sustaining.
Meanwhile, Cheng expects SynCab to incur losses in the first few months. However, he said demand for disabled-friendly taxis will keep rising, so he is confident about SynCab’s long-term outlook.
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