Uber crackdown: Misplaced priorities

August 14, 2015 16:00
An online petition calling for support for Uber has received more than 46,000 signatures, sending a message to HK authorities amid a crackdown on the private car-hailing service. Credit: https://action.uber.org/hongkong/

Hong Kong authorities have justified their arrests of some Uber drivers and a subsequent raid on the firm's local offices by saying that they are merely seeking to curb illegal car-hire services in the city.

The drivers have been accused of providing unlicensed services and for operating without proper insurance. 

As of Thursday, a total of seven drivers had been arrested apart from three Uber staff members. Eight of those ten people are said to have been granted bail, but the police have indicated that they will continue the crackdown.

Meanwhile, public sympathy seems to be clearly on the side of Uber, as shown from the response to an online signature campaign launched by the global online car-hailing giant.  

More than 10,000 people expressed support for Uber within just two hours after the firm kicked off a campaign late Thursday afternoon, aiming to put pressure on the government to back off.

Enthused by the response, the company raised its initial signature target by five times to 50,000. As of now, more than 46,000 people have signed up on the petition.

On the petition page, Uber avoided a reference to the allegation of providing an unlicensed car-hire service, but stressed that its goal is to provide Hongkongers a safe, reliable and quality transport option they deserve.

The company also offered an olive branch to authorities, saying it will "welcome an opportunity to work with the government to modernize regulations in order to accommodate technologies that will help make Hong Kong a more livable city."

The message struck a chord among netizens, many of whom do not have a good opinion of the traditional taxi services and want more choice for travelers.

In online forums, people have said that service quality of the traditional taxis has been deteriorating and that consumers mustn't be deprived of better alternatives offered by firms such as Uber.

But transport and housing minister Anthony Cheung has yet to respond to the public concerns, as his attention is perhaps focused more on the water contamination scandal at public housing estates.

Against this backdrop, it's not surprising that Uber has opted for an online petition, deploying a strategy it successfully used in some other cities in the world where it had faced regulatory hurdles.

The company hopes it can enter into a dialogue with the government to ensure a better and clear regulatory environment for technology-based car-hire services.

"Around the world, Uber is working with governments to achieve a common goal that creates safe, reliable, and efficient transportation options supported by reasonable, consumer-friendly regulations," it said in a statement posted on the online option page.

"We look forward to meeting with the Transport and Housing Bureau, other government bodies, and legislators to discuss how we can work together to encourage innovation and create a better Hong Kong for residents, tourists, and business travelers."

While it remains to be seen if the transport bureau will soften its approach, Uber has another crucial thing that it needs to focus on right now -- legal support to the drivers arrested by the police.

As the traditional taxi opertors are expected to step up pressure on authorities to rein in private car services, firms such as Uber have their task cut out.

Liberal Party's Frankie Yick Chi-ming, a lawmaker representing the transport sector, has urged the government to begin prosecuting the arrested Uber drivers as soon as possible so that authorities can identify any loopholes in the law.

Meanwhile, he suggested that the taxi industry should introduce a luxury cab service to ward off threats posed by entities such as Uber.

By making the suggestion, Yick has indirectly admitted the current taxi service does not fulfill market expectations.

But he would be mistaken if he thinks that the public is supporting Uber only because of its higher-end service.

A main reason why many people are supporting Uber is because they would like to break the monopoly of transport services by a small group of tycoons.

Taxi licenses are controlled by people who treat the licenses as investment products rather than anything else, without paying heed to the public services aspect.

In other transport segments, MTR Corp. has a monopoly on local train services after a merger of rail firms in 2007. Public bus services, meanwhile, are controlled by property tycoons.

All this has prompted the public to seek more choices for the consumer, which explains the outpouring of support for entities such as Uber which seek to raise the service standards.

But the government seems to be lacking the courage to improve the situation to satisfy the public need.

Authorities should bear in mind that protectionism of the traditional taxi industry will only benefit vested interests, harming the interests of ordinary citizens.

Increased competition will help bring about an improvement in the quality of local taxi services and make the operators adopt modern practices. 

Right now, we often see drivers refusing passengers if the destinations are deemed inconvenient, and demanding higher fares during times of bad weather. Also, taxi owners are reluctant to install credit card payment systems in the vehicles.

All these issues could be addressed if we break the monopoly of the operators and allow newer tech-savvy rivals.

Chief executive Leung Chun-ying had said earlier that he will focus on people's livelihood issues to improve the life of the common man.

However, the approach of his administration recently, on issues ranging from the lead-in-water crisis at public housing estates to a food-safety scare pertaining to imported sandwiches to the latest incidents involving Uber, shows that he has not exactly been moving in line with public opinion.

Leung shouldn't underestimate the public anger over the taxi services.

If he fails to act in a more calibrated manner, it will only undermine public confidence in his administration further.

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EJ Insight writer