Act now to legalise car-hailing services
If Hong Kong is to truly become a smart city, then the government must stop pandering to the narrow, vested interests of the taxi industry
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has set the goal of making Hong Kong a smart city. The head of the Consumer Council, Professor Wong Yuk-shan, speaks for countless long-suffering commuters when he says one way Lam could achieve this is to open up the market for online car-hailing services. That is a no-brainer, but still a non-starter in the city’s “free economy”, given the political fallout of the impact it would have on multimillion-dollar investments in taxi plates. That does not evoke the can-do spirit with which the city’s success is associated. If Hong Kong is serious about becoming a smart city, it cannot allow vested interests opposed to necessary change to prevail. The city needs a way forward that at least gives car-hailing services a small but legitimate foothold in the market from which they can grow according to public demand.
Releasing a study on the city’s online ride-hailing market and taxi service, Wong,said the government should begin demolishing regulatory barriers by relaxing the rules of the current 1,500-permit system for private hire cars to make it easier for e-hailing vehicles to operate legally. This would be a good start to a progressive approach to legalising and regulating such services.
The government has maintained a tough stance against Uber drivers for operating without a permit. But there is no question many passengers remain dissatisfied with the service provided by the city’s taxi drivers. More flexible, personal transport options in our overcrowded, poorly planned urban environment are fundamental to ambitions to be a smart city.
The taxi industry is an example of how innovation often tests the appetite for hard decisions. While officials are pushing a token e-hailing service to be supplied by 600 franchised premium taxis, Wong and his team have shown a way back into the fast lane for a form of transport left behind by technology and innovation. That said, any change will have serious implications for many people invested in taxi plates. To avoid provoking disruptive protests, car-hailing services need to be introduced gradually, explained carefully and be inclusive.