A fare deal

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 July, 2007, 12:00am

Tongues are wagging. Taxi drivers are offering their views freely to those who will listen. The recent slow-drive protest by some of the drivers over moving the pickup point at the airport provided a reference for these people to speak their minds. They say that things are not good for law-abiding drivers trying to eke out a living and stay out of trouble. They complain about criminal gangs interfering in an honest business and how things have become worse, not better, in recent years. They are jaded about politicians and officials, whom they see as useless in fighting obvious abuse.

During a ride last week, the driver complained that some passengers expect a 20 per cent discount because of the ongoing practice by some who offer reductions on longer journeys, including airport rides.

The driver recounted a story of a passenger who told him the destination and then said she would pay 80 per cent of the fare shown on the meter. He wanted the full fare, because that is the whole point of having fares set by means of a meter.

On several recent occasions, drivers have complained to me about practices at many hotels. They said that, for airport rides, an independent cabbie would often lose out to those affiliated to groups that have relationships with the doormen.

Another complaint was that the airport could not deal with taxi management because of alleged triad activities. One driver said that if he wanted to do airport rides, he would need to pay the triads a monthly 'fee' for the privilege; otherwise, he would have to queue for a very long time for the journey back to town from Chek Lap Kok.

All the complainants ended their lament by blaming the government and police for not doing their job. They spoke about their frustration in the face of such lawlessness.

A man in his 60s said that he had been a taxi driver for decades, and things had got much worse in recent years. 'Why is our 'strong government' not using the law to fight lawlessness?' he asked. 'We have the law, but it is not followed.'

These complaints help to put the slow-drive protest in perspective. There has been a longstanding battle within the taxi industry between those who charge meter-fares and radio-despatched taxis offering a 20 per cent discount. The latter also pick up passengers at a drop-off point at the airport, instead of queuing in the taxi rank.

The airport management's plan to move the pickup point to a distant car park triggered the slow-drive protest, which caused serious traffic delays.

A compromise was eventually reached, and a temporary pickup point closer to the airport was arranged, but radio-taxis are not allowed to pick up passengers from the temporary location.

We will have to see if this will work, but the issue of the discounts still remains, and also whether the triads dominate certain parts of the taxi business.

These problems have been well-aired on radio phone-in programmes, so the authorities cannot say that they don't know about them. I asked the cabbies why they thought the authorities were not dealing with the problems.

Some drivers blamed top officials for not knowing what was really going on in society, while others thought that taxi drivers were small potatoes and that the chief executive and his team would not bother to solve their problems. One view was that the authorities were fearful of protests that would cause congestion and so tended to appease those who are organised.

What was most interesting about these conversations was the drivers' sense of unfairness. They complained about the weakening of the rule of law because the authorities were no longer acting as vigilant guardians of the public interest.

Their analysis of their plight may be open to question, but their grievances are not without reason. Why is the law not implemented?

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange