【明報專訊】UBER, a mobile application (app) that offers hire car services, has been accepted and welcomed by Hong Kong people. Like a rock thrown into a pond, it has provoked a wave of protests from the taxi industry, which has pressed the government into taking action against it. But Uber has also inspired a feeling in the industry that it has to reform and exert itself. As far as we can see, one of the industry's focuses is the introduction of luxury taxi services. It has to be pointed out, however, that the problems of the taxi industry cannot possibly be solved by introducing "by-appointment" or luxury taxi services. They have to be tackled at their root. To turn things around, the taxi industry has to enhance drivers' standards and put in place an effective mechanism for monitoring taxi operations.
Under pressure from the taxi industry, the government has taken a hard line on Uber. Not only did the police conduct a sting operation and make several arrests, but they also raided Uber's office, showing that they were launching a full-scale crackdown on its operations. The police even informed the media of their actions. All this shows that the authorities intend to stifle Uber's hire car services. There are indeed legal problems with Uber's business model that have to do with insurance and licences. It has been unable to counter the authorities' crackdown, and there is no way it can do so. The taxi industry, on the other hand, has preserved its monopoly with the help of the authorities. However, as can be seen from netizens' criticisms of the taxi industry and the police's actions, the public is largely sympathetic towards Uber. All this can be regarded as a backlash against taxi services.
Uber allows passengers to get a ride by appointment, which is the mainstay of its services. Furthermore, Uber cars are cleaner and more comfortable. Uber drivers are neatly attired. They offer good services and always put their customers first. Still, the key to Uber's success is its "by-appointment" feature rather than service quality.
In fact, if those in the taxi industry are willing to enhance the standards of their services, they can do so all by themselves. Some taxi drivers, for example, have begun driving taxis of a new type. Though the fuel consumption of such a taxi is similar to that of a conventional one, it has a much larger boot, which holds seven suitcases and three backpacks. Its back seats are equipped with airbags, making passengers feel safe. And it is so spacious that even foreigners of tall stature will feel comfortable. We understand such taxis are used specifically for rides to border crossings and the airport. They are very well received by tourists, so much so that their drivers do 20% more business a day. This shows that, even if things remain as they are, the taxi industry can bring about a win-win situation between itself and the public if it is willing to change.
Conceivably, it may go some way towards improving taxi services to make use of apps and introduce taxis of new types or luxury taxis. However, it is taxi drivers' poor standards that lie at the root of inadequate taxi services. According to a study conducted by PolyU Technology and Consultancy Company Limited (PTeC), over the past ten years, taxi drivers' incomes have not increased. The occupation hardly appeals to the younger generation. Taxi drivers' low incomes have to do with the structure of the industry, which, in turn, has to do with enormous interests. As we do not see the government can handle matters concerning taxi licences, we are not optimistic about the taxi industry's self-improvement. In spite of this, the recommendation in the PTeC's study that the taxi industry should set up a council for improving taxi services, which would handle complaints against the industry and suggest improvements, should be looked into in detail. The first thing we should do is to give the industry a chance to regulate itself. If that does not work, we will have to see how the authorities' powers should be brought into play.