Third-party apps: good for cabbies, bad for taxi operators

Third-party apps: good for cabbies, bad for taxi operators

In the half-hour taxi ride from Jurong to Toa Payoh, cabby Chin Teck Seng's dashboard-mounted cellphone buzzed more than half a dozen times. He was not getting text messages, but requests for taxi bookings.

"Every five minutes, you'll get a booking, you don't have to wait," said the 65-year-old, who has been driving taxis for six years.

For cabbies, taxi apps have been a definite boon, with some saying they can earn about $50 more each day.

But it is not such a rosy picture for taxi operators, said Mr Seng Han Thong, deputy chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport. "Somebody is taking away their business."

The Sunday Times understands that operators are discussing with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) what the new regulations should be.

ComfortDelGro, the largest taxi operator here, told The Sunday Times that the company would "welcome any regulatory requirements" that would safeguard the interests of commuters.

But transport experts say the regulations would also level the playing field for taxi operators which have been lagging behind in the app race.

National University of Singapore transport researcher Lee Der Horng points out that the status quo encourages double standards - the taxi operators have smartphone apps too, but these are monitored by the LTA.

At present, taxi operators are subject to Quality of Service standards which require them to meet benchmarks in areas such as responding to calls and matching commuters to drivers.

But beyond setting benchmarks, new regulations can also allow the LTA to rein in and prevent fare structures from spiralling out of control.

Some third-party apps set their own fares, such as Uber with its UberX service, which offers private cars for hire.

"Taxi fare structures in Singapore are already among the most complicated, are we adding even more confusion?" said Prof Lee, adding that if the LTA allows smartphone apps to set their own fare structure with taxis, it will in effect create virtual taxi fleets.

"These won't have their own cars but they will ride on other fleets - it's a grey area."

It is for reasons like these that taxi apps have stirred up controversies globally.

Germany has banned Uber outright, while Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai have restricted their use to non-peak periods.

While an outright ban here is unlikely, experts say app operators should be ready for requirements such as opening their transactions and bookings to LTA audits, coming up with databases of commuters and drivers, and excluding private cars from their services.

But whatever happens, these apps have fundamentally changed how taxis here operate.

Comfort cabby Jason Ang, 43, now takes more bookings from GrabTaxi and Easy Taxi apps than through calls from Comfort.

Mr Ang, who has been driving for two years, said app bookings now form a fifth of an average of 20 fares for him each day.

"If the third-party app has jobs, I will take them for sure, right? I have to make a living."

This article was first published on Nov 09, 2014.
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