Cabbies are thinking of jumping ship

Once a critic of private car hire services, ex-cabby Mr A. L. Tan has become the person he used to hate.

He used to dislike private car hire drivers from UberX and GrabCar for "stealing his rice bowl", a common sentiment among cabbies.

Today, he drives a red Toyota Camry - his rental UberX car - instead of the Renault Trans-Cab he drove up until three months ago.

"It is the same colour. But the feeling is different," the 50-year-old said in Mandarin.

"Moneywise, I make around the same. I feel like I am driving a personal vehicle, rather than a company one."

A hypocrite? No, this is a sign of the times, he said.

He is one of many cabbies who have made the switch to private car hire companies in recent months.

Last month, as many as 800 cabs were seen sitting idle in the Trans-Cab yards in Defu and Sungei Kadut.

This works out to around 15 per cent of its fleet, reported The Straits Times.

Most cabbies The New Paper interviewed said they know of someone who has made the switch to UberX and GrabCar.

They are usually relief drivers - part-time drivers who share a part of the rent and drive a different shift from the main driver - or "hirers".

MORE FLEXIBILITY

Why relief drivers in particular?

It comes down to the appeal of private car hire services to relief drivers who are interested in driving on a part-time, "semi-serious" basis, said Professor Lee Der- Horng, a National University of Singapore transport researcher.

The industry should be worried because they make up a majority of taxi drivers, he added. (See report on right.)

"If you drive a taxi, you will have to clock a certain amount of time and distance on the road due to regulations.

"But UberX and GrabCar are far more flexible as this is not required."

Relief drivers, who used to share taxi rent, are now able to a private car for a full day at a similar price.

It costs $50 a day to rent a private car.

It can cost nearly thrice as much - $130 a day - to rent a taxi.

A ComfortDelGro hirer, Mr Goh Choon Liang, 53, said: "Everyone wants to drive when its convenient to do so, and in the past, people used to drive 'pirate' taxis instead.

"The Government stopped this (practice). But now, there is the option (of UberX and GrabCar), so it's getting more difficult to find a relief driver."

Mr Goh has given up the search for one.

He earns around $120 driving his Hyundai taxi on his own for 12 hours daily, including weekends. The car is unused the rest of the day.

If he had a second driver during this downtime, he could halve his rental costs, netting him around $200 of daily earnings.

The average net monthly earning of taxi drivers in 2014 was $3,173 for a single-shift operation, and $5,933 for a two-shift operation, former manpower minister Tan Chuan-Jin said earlier this year.

UberX and GrabCar drivers told TNP that they make similar amounts, with lower car rentals.

However, the cars run on petrol, while taxis use cheaper diesel.

'WAIT AND SEE'

So the real incentive of switching to these companies is the relative freedom of driving a private car, said Mr Tan.

With regulation changes on the horizon, cabbies have adopted a "wait and see" attitude.

Mr Goh said: "I don't mind competition, because I can be an Uber driver any time. But let the taxi companies fight it out with them first."

Added relief driver Ken Chian, 46: "There's a lot of unhappiness among taxi drivers because we have so many rules on us already. If the changes favour Uber or GrabTaxi, I will consider switching.

"Don't be surprised if many taxi drivers follow (suit)."

Experts say taxi industry may collapse

The taxi industry might "completely collapse" if there is no effective change to the status quo.

This is not hyperbole, but a real possibility, said Dr Park Byung Joon, a transport researcher at the Singapore Institute of Management.

The adjunct associate professor said: "The moment Singapore states its stand on private car hire companies, everything will change.

"And if the review stops only at safety issues and vocational licences, you will see the end of taxi drivers."

This is because taxi drivers are likely to prefer the flexible arrangement of UberX and GrabCar services.

Most taxi drivers are between the ages of 40 and 60 and do not want to be on the road all day, he said.

As of December last year, about four in five cabbies were aged 50 and above, according to latest statistics.

For this age group, the job of a taxi driver is not for "hardcore" earners but for people who just want to contribute to their household finances.

Said Dr Park: "It is a full-time job for them, but it doesn't mean that they are looking at it as a career.

"No one is going to say that he is going to be a taxi driver his whole life."

LAST RESORT

NUS transport researcher Lee Der-Horng agrees: "There are 98,000 taxi vocational licence holders, but only 56,000 are driving taxis. This isn't a case of a driver shortage.

"Instead, many licence holders are just holding on to the licence as a last resort, in case something happens and they need a job."

The increasing difficulty of getting a relief driver is also indicative of this.

Said Prof Lee: "If this trend continues, I think even taxi drivers may also want to give up or switch.

"Most taxi drivers need a relief driver. The moment you don't have this, it's more difficult to stay in this profession."

But why should commuters care if taxis disappear?

Dr Park believes Singaporeans are not prepared for the UberX or GrabCar pricing model, in which fares are largely determined by supply and demand.

UberX's surge pricing model was recently criticised for exponentially jacking up the price of rides.

A collapse of the taxi industry will also cause the loss of decent stopgap jobs for many Singaporeans between the ages of 40 and 60 who may need it, he said.

"Remember that a long time ago, we grappled with many horror stories caused by 'pirate' taxis. We have come a long way to create a well-structured public transport system.

"We should not be too quick to dismiss them."

ngjunsen@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on November 2, 2015.
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