Mavis Toh
Sun, Jan 06, 2008
The Sunday Times
'Hey...want to take cab? No surcharge for peak hours'

AS MR A.L. Tan's cab comes into sight, an A4-size handwritten sign on his dashboard is what a potential passenger will see first.

'Not 35% surcharge peak hour', it says.

He has resorted to waiving the surcharge after last month's cab fare hike.

'I used to make up to $130 during peak hours,' said the cabby of 15 years in Mandarin. 'Then the customers were scared off and I couldn't even make $10!'

Cabbies complain that passengers are disappearing during morning and evening rush hours. What used to be a $2 flat surcharge for travelling between 7am and 9.30am, or 5pm and 8pm, is now calculated as 35 per cent of the metered fare.

A passenger travelling from Ang Mo Kio MRT station to Choa Chu Kang's Lot 1 Shopping Centre pays about $14 outside peak periods. Slap on the surcharge during peak hours and the fare is now $19.

Although cab companies are optimistic that the recent fare changes will raise drivers' incomes, cabbies themselves are not so sanguine.

Most of the 20 cabbies The Sunday Times spoke to say that passengers are more receptive to the 30-cent higher flag-down fare, but baulk at paying the peak-hour surcharge.

Of the 10 passengers The Sunday Times spoke to, seven said they now avoid taking cabs whenever possible, especially during peak hours. The others said that they still take a cab at least once a day.

Property agent A.C. Yeo, 54, said she now takes the train to work instead. A cab ride from her Bishan flat to her office in Toa Payoh used to cost her $6.50 during peak hours. Now, it has gone up to about $8.

To encourage more passengers to catch taxis during peak hours, some cabbies such as Transcab's Mr Tan have come up with their own strategies.

Comfort cabby B.P. Pang, 52, is giving out discounts together with his business card in the hope of increasing his passenger base.

For a $27.40 trip from Tampines to Cecil Street, including peak-hour and Electronic Road Pricing surcharges, Mr Pang charges his passenger $21, giving him a 23 per cent discount.

He usually gives discounts only to customers whose fares exceed $20, in the hope that they will call for his cab in future.

'I used to get at least six customers during peak hours, now I don't even get two,' said the cabby of three years in Mandarin.

Comfort cabby Jack Ng, 47, admits to touting at bus stops for potential passengers. Down goes his windscreen as he drives by and yells out: 'Taxi, taxi, no surcharge.'

He said in Mandarin: 'Many people have turned to buses and trains since the fare hike. So I try my luck at bus stops and tempt them with my cheaper fare, without the surcharge.'

Even with his new tactic, Mr Ng says he takes home about $80 a day, a 30 per cent dip from before. But he is optimistic that business will pick up as more customers are asking for his phone number and calling him when they need rides.

Sales manager Maria Woo, 35, for example, has become Mr Ng's regular passenger, ringing him for a ride during peak hours. She takes a cab at least five times a day for business meetings.

'He doesn't charge me the 35 per cent and the on-call charges, saving me up to $65 a week!' she said.

Asked if it was legitimate for cabbies to offer customers discounts, a spokesman for Comfort, Singapore's largest taxi operator, said that cabbies are essentially their own businessmen.

She added: 'It is their prerogative to give discounts to their customers should they so desire.'

While some cabbies are fighting the passenger drought, others are using the lax period to take longer breaks at coffee shops.

SMRT cabby S.K. Tang, 50, said: 'Driving around looking for passengers is just costing me more diesel.'

Comfort cabby D. Ghing, 60, said cabbies are now trying to 'out-drive' each other for passengers.

'Customers are like Hollywood stars now - one passenger flags, four cabs will zoom in,' said the cabby of 25 years. 'It's a dog-eat-dog world here.'

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