Hong Kong must legalise Uber and defuse escalating row with taxi trade
Albert Cheng says the government should bow to market demand and accept Uber as part of the city’s transport solutions. This means bringing it under regulation, which may help pacify anger in the taxi trade
Hong Kong taxi drivers who applied for injunction orders against Occupy Central protesters in 2014 were in the news last month for staging a slow-drive protest in Central against the Uber “invasion”. It is ironic that they who once faulted the Occupy Central protesters for obstructing public areas were themselves doing the same. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their action did not win public support.
Hong Kong taxis are known for their poor service standards, and Uber offers commuters a welcome alternative. Thus, even a government crackdown on Uber and the promise of a new premium taxi scheme have not stopped people using Uber.
Indeed, with a growing number of people relying on the ride-hailing service, it is time for the government to put serious thought into legalising Uber.
The government’s proposal for a premium taxi service will benefit the taxi companies, but not the drivers themselves or passengers. Under the scheme, the government will work with several taxi operators to issue 600 licences for premium taxis. These are taxis that are relatively new (less than six years on the road) and will offer Wi-fi connection and other services. But since the licences are owned by the taxi companies and rented out to individual drivers, it’s hard to see how it could help raise drivers’ income.
Worse, with their higher fare, these premium taxis are expected to attract only a small percentage of regular passengers. How, then, can their introduction exert pressure on the regular taxi fleets to improve their service? With no improvement in service in the regular taxis, most users won’t benefit from the scheme.
To boost driver income and improve the trade, the government should do more to encourage taxi drivers to own their cars, instead of allowing a few companies to dominate the market.
Government officials should also ride the tide of innovation and technology. Many cities all over the world have opened their taxi markets to Uber.
In fact, before Uber entered the Hong Kong market, some taxi drivers had already come up with their own new operation models. The “discount taxis” – which, as its name implies, offers a discount on the metered fare – airport taxis and taxis for the disabled are the most common examples. However, all these alternative options are not well-regulated.
And while the Hong Kong government is still undecided on its taxi policy, another ride-hailing service provider similar to Uber, Didi Chuxing, has become popular in mainland China.
In India, the government has put Uber under a well-established regime. Uber cars are clearly labelled and easily identified. It is eye-opening to see regulated Uber cars waiting in line with the Indian auto rickshaws and no longer causing any conflict or chaos, but purely offering more choice to passengers.
Frankly, the pros of legalising Uber definitely outweigh the cons. The government can just make a simple amendment of the Road Traffic Ordinance Section 52(1), allowing Uber to provide ride-hailing services to passengers who request it through the app. The government should also consider putting labels on Uber cars, as well as requiring Uber to secure third-party insurance to protect passengers’ interests.
Further, to pacify anger in the taxi industry, the government should give taxi drivers priority to apply for Uber licences.
Uber’s biggest strength is its efficient and effective use of its online platform, which links up the drivers with a bigger pool of passengers. The government should also encourage more platform operators to take the initiative of matching drivers and passengers, so as to bring new opportunities to the innovation and technology industry in Hong Kong.
The government should demonstrate its determination in supporting the creative and IT industries, and at the same time resolve the escalating conflict between Uber and the taxi trade.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. [email protected]