Uber director seeks meeting with Hong Kong chief executive-elect to set a regulatory framework

Damian Kassabgi also reveals company has put on hold its new service following arrest of 22 drivers last week in major police crackdown

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 May, 2017, 10:08pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 May, 2017, 3:44pm

Embattled car-hailing firm Uber is seeking talks with Hong Kong’s incoming leader in the hope of securing a formal regulatory framework for its operations.

In an exclusive interview with the Post, Damian Kassabgi, Uber’s director of public policy for the Asia Pacific, also revealed how the firm was forced to put on hold a plan to launch a new service in Hong Kong that would have ­allowed passengers to share rides.

Uber’s confidence in the city’s business environment and development was hit hard by last week’s police crackdown which saw 22 drivers arrested, he added.

The firm is requesting a meeting with Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor after she takes up the chief executive’s job on July 1 to ask for a regulatory framework and a relaxation of curbs on the city’s 18,000 taxis.

Sources said the company’s business had taken a nosedive following the latest crackdown on Uber drivers accused of driving without hire-car permits or third-party insurance.

Kassabgi said the plan to launch UberPOOL in Hong Kong would be put on hold until the firm was reassured about its future in the city.

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UberPOOL is a cheaper service that allows passengers to share trips and split the bill among themselves when heading to the same destination. In San Francisco, about 50 per cent of Uber rides are UberPOOL trips, as the fare is about a third cheaper.

The service is now available in jurisdictions that regulate Uber, such as Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, India and the US. It provides passengers sharing a ride with information on each other as a safety precaution.

Kassabgi, who is responsible for negotiating Uber’s operations with regional governments, said the city only needed a few changes in the law to regulate its service by recognising new technology for the industry.

“We are very willing to be regulated,” he said. “We can fit into any different regulatory framework. I see no reason in Hong Kong why we couldn’t fit into the hire-car permit regime with a few changes.

“What’s important is for us to gain some certainty about the regulatory framework here. I think it’s an opportunity for the new chief executive to have that discussion. Once we have regulatory certainty, then we can be talking about these products [like UberPOOL] in the future,” he added.

In the face of strong opposition from taxi operators and their representatives in the Legislative Council, the public policy director suggested the government consider “deregulating” the taxi trade to achieve a win-win situation.

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The measures could include offering incentives for taxi operators to return their licences, which cost more than HK$6.5 million each on the market, introducing flexible pricing for taxis to charge higher fares for pre-booked trips and issuing more taxi licences, he suggested.

Kassabgi rejected concerns that Uber was a threat to the city’s taxi industry, citing Singapore as an example where the number of taxi trips had not been reduced over the past three years despite the growth of Uber.

Hong Kong taxis still enjoyed many advantages over Uber such as the exclusive right of being hailed on the street and touting for customers at taxi stands, while Uber only handled pre-booked trips, he argued.

Kassabgi noted that Hong Kong lagged behind other cities in terms of ride-hailing services, as they had introduced measures such as setting up a system for drivers to register as Uber partners, or regulating Uber as a platform with rules supervising its drivers.

In Singapore drivers have to apply for a special licence and meet certain requirements before they can work as Uber drivers.

Kassabgi said the current hire-car permit system, capped at 1,500 permits, was so stringent and outdated that it could not allow Uber with its flexible business model to be eligible, given that 80 per cent of more than 30,000 Uber drivers in the city worked as part-timers.

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The office of the chief executive-elect did not answer queries on the issue.

Liberal Party lawmaker Frankie Yick Chi-ming, who represents the transport sector in Legco, said the legalisation of Uber in Hong Kong and deregulation of the taxi industry were two different matters. He remained opposed to Uber joining the market, but agreed that flexible pricing should be introduced for taxis to improve the livelihood of cabbies.

“In many foreign countries, taxis are allowed to impose surcharges during peak hours or at some busy districts such as the airport or town centres. I think Hong Kong could consider the same move,” he said.