Don't race to change taxi fare system

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 October, 2004, 12:00am

In times of economic downturn, consumers will look to cut personal spending. Thanks to a legal loophole that allows taxi passengers to negotiate discounts from drivers, long-distance cab fares have apparently become one of these flexible expense items.

As long as all parties stay within the law and as long as drivers can still earn a living wage, there can be little wrong with this. But when, as reported in recent months, there are assaults on drivers because they refuse to discount, it may be time for drivers' unions and the transport authorities to have a look at the issue.

The first opportunity may come when the Transport Department seeks industry and public input on whether to set long-distance fares to common destinations such as the airport. Other proposals include lowering meter fares and ending the leeway passengers have to bargain.

What is not clear is whether there is any kind of industry consensus on the way forward. Some taxi associations have been and still are advocating fare increases. Whatever solution is adopted, it must be straightforward enough for the average out-of-town visitor to comprehend and to close the gaps in understanding that are leading to violence against the drivers.

In the end, there is only anecdotal evidence on how common fare negotiations and discounting are, but the practice - and the abuse of drivers associated with it - has become enough of a trend to warrant attention. Certainly, we must have sympathy for drivers who face abuse for refusing to cut their fares. This is not acceptable and the incidents should be investigated. However, those advocating one solution or another should be prepared to provide some convincing data on why changes are needed to what is otherwise a serviceable fare arrangement.

Compared with other large cities around the world, Hong Kong's taxi fleet is user-friendly, relatively inexpensive and widely available for hire. The efficiency of the service is one reason why car ownership remains low here, a situation that helps keep air pollution in check. Any of the options put forward should aim to keep these positive attributes in place. If, in fact, the reported assaults are isolated incidents, the answer may be a small dose of public education, not an overhaul of the taxi system.

The set fares for long trips now being contemplated by the government might make sense for other reasons completely - such as stimulating attendance at suburban tourist attractions not served by public transport - and the case for the change should be presented as such.

Orderliness in a service industry that is used by visitors to Hong Kong will only enhance their experience and the city's draw as a destination. Before any decisions can be made, the public needs more reliable information on how widespread discounting is and the likelihood that it will get worse.