One late night recently I had to wait for more than 20 minutes to get a taxi as two cabbies decided not to accept my business.
The first driver refused to let me to hop in when he heard the place I wanted to go to. And the second driver put up the “Out of Service” sign as soon as he heard my destination.
I was very grateful and relieved when a third driver finally allowed me to get into his vehicle, even as I found the car a bit old and smelly.
It’s quite common that one has to wait for a long time for a taxi in downtown or during times of bad weather. Also, many drivers tend to reject passengers wanting to go to places that are deemed not lucrative enough in terms of the returns offered to the taxi operators.
Once I had waited, with a daughter in my arms, for almost half an hour for a taxi. The taxi driver, however, insisted that we get off when he was told where we wanted to go. He refused to cross the tunnel, although my daughter was tired and hungry.
In such situations, I guess most people would not bother to waste more time and lodge a complaint. Often, drivers are choosy about their passengers, take circuitous routes or keep the change without asking when paid the fare at the end of the ride.
Complaints about poor service and the rude attitude of taxi drivers have increased at double-digit pace recently in Hong Kong. Taxi service in the city is gradually falling behind.
This undoubtedly has opened a market for companies such as Uber. Now, I don’t intend to go overboard in praising Uber, whose goal is to make a profit rather than do social charity.
I’ve noted Uber drivers mark up prices when there is heavy demand. I have been asked to pay 2.5 times the normal price when sending a request under Typhoon Signal 3. And I also need to pay double the price during events such as the book fair to get a ride.
That said, Uber does offer a high-quality option for passengers who are willing to pay more in urgent situations.
Uber cars are cozier and the drivers are more polite, which would impress many. That’s why the company has expanded so fast, and already grown into a big company valued at more than US$50 billion.
Hong Kong taxi companies are feeling a threat and have decided to oppose Uber. However, they might be taking the wrong direction.
Uber has kicked off a new revolution, which is transforming the taxi industry through the use of modern technology. Its success has drawn in many investors to the industry. In the future, we might see smarter and more convenient apps than Uber.
Most taxi licenses in Hong Kong are held by big taxi companies, and they’ve established an industry association. Thus, it shouldn’t be very hard for them to establish a new platform and map out a new business model.
For example, the taxi industry could consider overhauling the old model related to renting out cars to drivers. Or they could introduce new technology and management skills to match cars and demand. That would offer more convenience for passengers and also generate more income for the companies.
And if taxi operators can ensure more comfortable vehicles and train their drivers to be more polite, and accept e-payment, that would be welcomed by passengers and will help the traditional taxis withstand competition from newer rivals.
But the sad fact is that the taxi operators lack the will to change their practices and undertake big reform. They have enjoyed protection from government, and taxi license prices have also kept appreciating over the years.
It remains questionable whether the operators have the motivation and the capability to embrace the new challenge.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 11.
Translation by Julie Zhu
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