20 mins with a taxi driver: Is Uber a threat to licensed cabbies?

For today’s 20 minutes segment, we speak with Mr. Roger Koh, a 67 year old taxi driver who has been driving for 32 years.

 

In 1979, NTUC Comfort launched a radio phone booking service. It was a big thing back then – the service took up to 1,200 calls a day and was touted as a marvel in modern technology. I was a very young kid back in the 80s and I remember being fascinated with these wired walkie-talkies in the taxis. It fascinated me that someone miles away could call for a taxi and the driver could respond from a moving vehicle to take the order.

I also remember a conversation between my father and the driver back then, it was mostly about how this “modern technology” made life so difficult and competitive for the drivers. To put things in perspective, NTUC Comfort was setup in 1970 and drivers made a living for about a decade without the radio booking service.

 

ntuc-comfort-taxi-at-changi-airport-1980s

(From Remember Singapore)

Then in 1987, the Singapore Mass Rapid Transit started operations with only 5 stations. (It wasn’t until 1990 that the NS-EW lines look like what it is today)

Mr. Roger Koh, a taxi driver who was driving for about three decades told me what it was like when that happened. “Everyone thought that this was it – that taxi drivers would go out of business”, he recalled. Taxi drivers panicked and thought that this new transport system would take everyone off the streets, rendering taxis useless.

 

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Each time a new technology appears, people fear it would take away their rice bowls.

Instead of taking away their rice bowls, these technologies actually opened new possibilities and made their work more productive. With the radio service, cabbies didn’t have to ply empty streets hoping for passengers to appear. With the new SMRT service, the country was now able to expand its economy allowing for larger population growth and all in all, making for a more wealthier populace that could afford these taxi services.

Today we think nothing of taking a taxi. The price of a fare as compared to our salaries is not enormous. However, my parents come from a generations where taxis are enormously expensive and unless in the most urgent of situations, will never never take one.

I started hearing of Uber becoming popular in the year 2014…and again there are drivers who worry about its use. Anyone with a driving licence can now be an Uber driver. If you don’t have a car, you can rent one from between $35 to $65 a day. You can only do electronic bookings though.. you cannot take street hires as Uber is not actually a taxi company.

Because of this, there are now a lot more drivers on the road competing for the taxi service.

Roger isn’t as worried about competition though.

 

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“Don’t be narrow minded, hear both sides of the story!” he said. For drivers, the number of people taking the taxis isn’t the problem. “Even if there are hundreds of passengers, you can only drive one at a time”, he reminds us. In fact, the LTA is concerned at the lack of taxis on the road. For this reason, they have imposed a 250km a day rule for drivers. Even this has done little to keep up with the demand for taxis.

The organisation that needs to worry, are the big taxi companies like Comfort. Uber is in itself a competitor to Comfort for both drivers and passengers. There is no such thing as a “casual taxi driver”. You had to contract to rent a cab for $160 a day, and if you take ill then that’s your problem. If you couldn’t find a relief taxi driver, then that’s your problem.

Today, there exist casual drivers who can chose to opt for Uber and ignore these taxi companies. And because Uber doesn’t need to own expensive taxi fleets, it is free to evolve in an infinite number of ways (as it has done in larger cities) and this makes taxi companies like ComfortDelGro nervous.

It is in the incentive of big companies to do everything in their power to shut down Uber. The easiest way is to slap the company with the “pirate taxi” label, then lobby the government to disallow such illegal operations. In some countries, a myriad of legal battles are fired at Uber – from wanting them to register as a taxi company (thus making them liable to pay for expensive vehicles) or to get them recognized as employers (and making them liable for hefty employee salaries, taxes and welfare). These are all bids to shut Uber down.

Sometimes, it is good to introduce a formidable competitor to the market. In today’s tripartite climate, yes, ComfortDelGro does co-operate with the National Taxi Association and the LTA….but there is nothing that compels it to. There is no need for Comfort to listen to anyone.

All this has changed with Uber entering the scene. There are reports of drivers now finding Comfort more willing to listen to ordinary drivers and hear out their suggestions and grievances.

The National Taxi Association and the Government probably aren’t too keen to completely ban Uber, as what the French have done. There are tremendous benefits that the service provider has brought to the country, for example efficiently allocating vehicles to good use in this resource scarce country, and more importantly, putting more taxis on the road.

To improve on the experience, Parliament has passed a “Third-Party Booking Service Providers Act” to regulate the system. Primarily, it requires that third-party booking service providers such as Uber does not charge more than the taxi companies. This prevents private drivers from over-charging. The Act also requires for drivers to register and get a vocational licence (which costs $335 and can be funded by NTUC’s Union Training Assistance Programme). The compulsory licensing allows the LTA to manage complaints, mete out punishment and uphold the quality of taxi service in Singapore – which sounds fair.

 

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As for drivers like Roger, well, he’s happy. He’s been driving for more than 32 years and has no plans to stop. “Many drivers worry about Uber, but there is no need to be small minded about it. I don’t have a problem with them” he says.

“My only wish, is that the Government would setup a kind of ‘civil resource’ service that allows for all owners of transportation to pitch in to help the next time we have a big transport breakdown”, he says.

“No need for money, this should be done from the heart”, said the man with a hearty laugh.

 

 

 

 

About the author

Benjamin Chiang

Benjamin Chiang is an enthusiast of good advertising, deep thinking, labour issues and chocolate. He writes also at www.rangosteen.com and occasionally on Yahoo!

The views expressed are his own.

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