Is a clean, modern taxi and a polite, safe driver too much to ask in Hong Kong?

Mike Rowse says transport secretary Anthony Cheung should be applauded for taking on vested interests in the taxi trade with a plan to give passengers the choice to pay for more professional service and comfort

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 July, 2016, 11:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 July, 2016, 7:22pm

It’s hard not to have a sneaking sympathy for Transport and Housing Secretary Anthony Cheung Bing-leung. When he was appointed, four years ago, it was on the basis of his expertise in housing matters. The intention was to reshuffle duties so he would be free to focus on that policy area. For various reasons, the reshuffle did not happen so Cheung has had to cope with both subjects.

There has been quite a lot of progress on the housing front: public rental housing output has been stepped up; the Home Ownership Scheme, shamefully suspended over a decade ago to prop up prices and protect developers’ profits, has been restored; private-sector residential unit production is on the increase; and, the revived land sales programme continues to push sites onto the market even with prices softening. It is only the long lead time for development that has delayed public recognition of the progress made.

Premium taxi services a good move that will benefit consumers

Meanwhile, Cheung has had to answer for crisis after crisis on the transport side. The Marine Department’s failings vividly exposed by the Lamma Island collision; delays to all the local MTR extension projects; the extraordinary delays and cost overruns of the high-speed cross border rail project; the issue of fare adjustment; controversy over a third runway and the financing of it – week after week has seen our minister on his feet taking flak in public.

In a town where money means power, that represents a lot of clout

But to show he is not fazed by this, Cheung is now proposing to take on the taxi trade, an example of a vested interest par excellence. As fellow columnist Jake van der Kamp has pointed out before, the 9,000 licence holders of the 18,000 ordinary taxi licences are sitting on wealth in excess of HK$120 billion (HK$7 million asking price per licence at its peak, now reported to be a shade under HK$6 million). The value of their asset is protected by the government policy since 1994 of not issuing new licences, basically on traffic congestion grounds (except for a small number of new licences for taxis on Lantau Island). In a town where money means power, that represents a lot of clout. While some licence holders also drive their own taxis, many do not bother and just rent out their vehicles on a daily basis to individual taxi drivers. This latter group has demonstrated a willingness to protect what it perceives to be its own interest by taking direct action, most famously in 1984 when the drivers responded to a government proposal to increase first registration tax by blocking roads. The government of the time quickly backed down. In effect, of course, the drivers are actually defending the licence holders’ interests rather than their own, but that is a distinction many of them either cannot see or choose not to make.

Hong Kong taxi drivers threaten to blockade airport over luxury cab plan

Be that as it may, the tribes are threatening to go on the warpath again, this time over a bold proposal to introduce premium taxis. A paper to the Legislative Council panel on transport last month reported on the many complaints against the existing taxi service: worn out shabby vehicles, drivers covering their meter, refusing to go to certain destinations, overcharging, and the like. It suggested one way to address the problem was to provide an additional superior type of service for a higher charge. A few companies would be granted a franchise to operate premium taxis, the performance of which would be closely monitored to prevent some of the existing common abuses.

The existing trade sees the proposal as a threat and the war drums are beating

The vehicles would be modern, clean and well equipped, with free Wi-fi, and mobile phone and charging devices. The drivers would be polite and smartly dressed with capability in both English and Putonghua. They would drive safely by the most direct route. No rides would be rejected, no meters covered.

Does this all sound too good to be true? Well not really, it sounds like the level of service we ought to be getting already. But, anyway, the existing trade sees the proposal as a threat and the war drums are beating.

The government is thinking in terms of several new franchises with up to 600 premium taxis. Interestingly, the discussion paper quotes as justification for the new scheme two factors: that an (unnamed) company introduced such a scheme which proved very popular, although it was technically unlawful; and other cities in the region have introduced a similar two-tier system. Full marks to the minister for at least trying.

I wonder which reason was the most persuasive, or as one might say, which one was Uber alles.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk