【明報專訊】TO KICK START the premium taxi scheme, the government has suggested issuing three new franchises, each with a period of 5 years, in order to supply 600 "franchised taxis" to Hong Kong's transportation system. This has provoked a backlash from the taxi industry. To contest the plan, some of its representatives are threatening to stage a "go-slow" protest of a 500-strong fleet of taxis, claiming that a larger-scale blockage of roads will follow if the government refuses to shelve the plan. They have even called on taxi drivers across the city to walk out for several hours.
Hong Kong's taxi industry has suffered a downturn in recent years, and people in taxi associations have often criticised the government for not offering assistance. We believe that one should attempt self-help before others can extend a helping hand. The problem faced with the taxi industry is largely the result of a long-standing lack of enterprise on the part of the industry itself. The industry cannot expect the government to help if it does not conduct a self-review and make the effort. Statistics show that complaints against taxis rose from 7,997 cases in 2010 to 10,060 cases in 2014, and they made up around 50 per cent of all complaints against public transportation services. In fact, many citizens have had it with taxi drivers — some of them refuse to do either long rides or short rides, while others are so unkind to passengers. The popularity of Uber, short-lived as it was, shows that citizens are very dissatisfied with the services provided by taxis.
Currently there are altogether 18,138 taxi licences. On the surface of it, these licences are widely distributed among almost 10,000 individuals and companies. However, since most taxis are managed by taxi companies, the whole industry is in fact dominated by several big players. And since taxi licences do not have an expiry date, many owners simply treat their licence as an item for market speculation, and do not have the commitment to develop their business.
Some taxi associations are aware of the problem and have launched "premium taxi" schemes to improve their services. However, to solve the problem once and for all, it takes more than the good intentions of a handful of people in the industry. It is necessary to reform the system. The government's plan to launch a premium "franchised taxi" scheme, which is aimed at not only tackling the problem of "pak pais" created by Uber but also improving the taxi service and encouraging competition, is a step in the right direction. The introduction of franchised taxis, if looked at from taxi drivers' point of view, will only create more job opportunities instead of causing any problems. The addition of 600 franchised taxis is not likely to threaten the survival of the 18,000 taxis currently on the streets either. Furthermore, given the higher fares of franchised taxis and the fact that they and ordinary taxis are in different markets, it is impossible for premium taxis to take the place of ordinary ones. If the taxi industry is willing to work ceaselessly to improve its services, it should not be afraid of the competition, since ordinary taxis still have a price advantage.
Some observers have pointed out the imperfections of the government's scheme, which include the mandatory requirement that the taxis must be replaced after five years. They have also questioned whether the requirement that a franchisee must operate 200 taxis is too high a threshold. Concerns like these can be discussed. However, discussion about technical details should not interfere with the overall direction. Services provided by taxis should be premium services themselves. The taxi industry should contemplate whether it will have society on its side before it stages a strike to "fight against" the government scheme. If the industry insists on holding the government on ransom by threatening to block the roads even if society does not approve of the action, it will be hijacking the public interest for selfish purposes.