It’s quite ridiculous that Hong Kong, which takes pride in calling itself Asia’s World City, has shown no tolerance for Uber, a ride-hailing service that employs the wonders of technology for the convenience of urban commuters.
Is it because Uber’s innovative business model poses a threat to the interests of some parties in the pro-Beijing camp?
Police on Tuesday arrested more than 20 Uber drivers in undercover operations across the city on suspicion they were operating without hire-car permits and third-party insurance.
Uber said it was “extremely disappointed” by the police action.
In a statement, it said “ride-sharing should not be a crime” as “Hong Kong is an international city known for its embrace of global economic trends and new technologies, but current transportation regulations have failed to keep up with innovation”.
The government should welcome new services that could make life easier for Hong Kong residents, instead of clamping down on their operations.
If such services appear to run counter to some city regulations, the government should amend existing ordinances to allow their legal operation.
Many Hong Kong residents now prefer to take Uber trips rather than hire taxis because of the big difference in the quality of service.
Meanwhile, instead of prodding the local taxi industry to shape up, the government is encouraging its dominance of the market and providing no incentive for it to improve its service.
Commuters have tons of complaints against taxi drivers, about their boorishness and unprofessionalism.
Who hasn’t yet encountered a cabbie who spouts foul language because of the short distance of the trip or one who refuses to carry passengers across the harbor?
In fact, Uber’s phenomenal growth is mainly due to the poor quality of the local taxi service, although as more drivers join the Uber team, complaints against some of its drivers are beginning to be heard.
Still, Uber offers a healthy competition to the local taxi industry, and the government should encourage such rivalry to improve the overall quality of service rather than stifle it.
Some observers point out that the police action against Uber came one and a half months after local taxis boosted their fares.
As we all know, Uber charges cheaper fares for some trips, and smart passengers choose its services because they are not only cheaper but also better.
After police first clamped down on its business a couple of years ago, Uber has opted for a low-profile operation in the city.
The company has found it hard to go full blast in its operations after its drivers were slapped with fines and driving bans.
The question, of course, is who is benefiting from this crackdown on app-based car hire services?
There has been talk that a veteran pro-Beijing politician owns a company that controls about a hundred taxi licenses in the city.
It’s quite easy for taxi operators to report drivers who are working for Uber to the police. But that won’t be enough to kick Uber out of Hong Kong.
In fact, clamping down on Uber won’t improve the local taxi industry.
The core problem is that there are only around 18,000 taxi licenses in the city, and that certainly falls short of the demand in a city with a population of seven million.
The current taxi license holders, on the other hand, have no desire to open up the market to new players such as Uber, Didi Chuxing and other car rental service providers.
These taxi operators enjoy a close relationship with the authorities. It is said, for example, that Maria Tam Wai-chu, a member of Beijing’s Basic Law Committee, has an investment in the local taxi industry.
This relationship lies at the root of what ails the taxi industry.
In Hong Kong, as in other places, business and politics have been inseparable bedfellows. But it is incumbent upon our officials to balance the needs of business and the welfare and convenience of the public.
Chief Executive-designate Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor should look into the issue of opening up the taxi industry to meet the needs of the growing market.
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