Current Affairs – Taxi Fare “Revision”

Well, well, well. Taxi fares are “adjusted” again. Just call it what it is – a fare hike – alright?

So what if it hasn’t been done for four years since 2007? I hadn’t had a pay increment for almost as long! As if that wasn’t bad enough, all but one of the operators also revised their taxi fares after the shameless National Taxi Association [NTA] urges them to do the same. The lame duck Competition Commission of Singapore (CCS) might say otherwise, but in reality this is simply cartel price fixing in any other country. The best part of this revision is that now taxi drivers can take a full 8 hour of rest, because the rest of the 16 hours are all cover with surcharges! Sadly, Singaporeans will just complain, and then demand for taxis goes down for a week or two. It won’t be long before everyone forget about it.

The excuse given by Comfort Delgro (which took the lead in the revision) is that the revision will better meet the increased demand for taxis. Oh really? According to Wikipedia, there are a total of 25,176 taxis in Singapore. That means roughly 1 taxi serving 206 people (according to the population figure of 5,183,700 by the Department of Statistics) on our island. Compare this to Hong Kong (population 7,122,508 according to indexmundi.com) with only 18,183 taxis whereby the ratio is approximately 1 taxi serving 392 people. That’s not mentioning the fact that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region [S.A.R. for short] (including Lantau Island, Kowloon and the New Territories), has a larger area than Singapore. While it is unlikely that everyone will demand a taxi, it is simply logical to deduce that we would see a bigger problem with taxi supply in Hong Kong. Instead, we have an “issue” with taxi supply in Singapore while none of us would have experienced the same in Hong Kong. This is where I would like to share several observations I made.

I was on leave one weekday but was awaken rather early by some inconsiderate school bus driver’s incessant honking at the foot of my block. After trying for half an hour and not being able to go back to sleep, I washed up and decided to take in some fresh air at the window. Bad choice, since it is overlooking the road outside and the air would hardly be fresh even though it is not foul smelling. It was about 7:30am and a small congestion has built up along the road leading the Jalan Boon Lay – the main thoroughfare that leads to Jurong Island and the Ayer Rajah Expressway [AYE]. I could see a number of empty taxi with the other cars queuing before the traffic light to make a turn into Jalan Boon Lay, while some lucky ones are picking up passengers along the same road. I also see a number of cabs with ‘On Call’ signs rushing around to pick up the callers and I observed that for a good 20 mins while sipping my coffee. (On the other hand, most cabs will be ‘On Call’ if it is a rainy morning. Few likes to be waiting in the rain for a taxi. On top of which, the call booking lines of the taxi operators will be so busy to the point no one can get through when it is raining heavily.)

When I came back to the window again after 9:30am, traffic on the road is scarce and I noticed a mother carrying her child in her arms trying to flag down the occasional taxi (many of them were already hired). It was a good 10 ~ 15 mins before she managed to flag one down in the hot sun. Poor mother and child. But it also reminded me that there was once where I needed to take a taxi at around 10am because I was late for an appointment at SunTec City. I end up queuing a good 10 mins at the taxi stand at Jurong Point because the normally long queue of taxis was missing. The reason I am at Jurong Point was that I had already waited a good 20 mins at the same road with no luck!

Now, I didn’t make the above observations just once to make a point. The situation described above happens on any weekday morning. The conclusion from these observations is simple: the morning rush hours would ‘suck’ the supply of taxis into the CBD area (or perhaps even the industrial parks) and by 10am there are few remaining taxis in the housing estates. When I am in town, I often find taxis either queuing at taxi stands in the CBD or outside a hotel lobby after the morning rush hours because once people are already in the office, the demand for taxis will drop drastically.

This situation is then reversed in the evening where home going passengers (after shopping or dinner) would ‘suck’ the supply of taxis out of the CBD area into the estates. Many taxi drivers felt that going to the estates at night is not worth their while since it will most likely be a one way trip out to an area where demand is low. So, they “play cheat” by ignoring passengers at taxi stands or those frantically flagging for one by the roadside. The idea is to force passengers to book for a taxi so they can earn a little more from the call charges. Coupled with the CBD surcharges that runs all the way to 11:59pm, the fare will be at least $8.30 ($2.80 flag down + $3 CDB charges + $2.50 call booking) depending on what taxi is booked.

This very attitude indicates a clear and simple fact – that there is an uneven distribution of both supply and demand. As a commuter, I am only interested in how this attitude impacts the availability of the supply. While it might be skewed to say there is no real increase in demand, the truth of the matter is merely using the supply and demand situation to justify a fare revision has no leg to stand on. After all, it is a more complex issue which involves the attitude of taxi drivers, and also that of our city design (as per my observation above) which seriously impact the distribution of taxis and directly affecting availability. This is clearly not an issue with insufficient supply of taxis!

In my opinion, the primarily driving force behind the unavailability of taxi supply is the attitude of the taxi drivers. A taxi driver would have us believe that they are ripped off by the rentals. The fact that Comfort Delgro recently posted a 12.5% rise in profit in the third quarter reinforces that perception, but it remained to be seen how much of that profit comes from operating taxis in Singapore. Unfortunately, I am just too lazy to dig further into Comfort Delgro’s quarterly reports to get the details.

In spite of that, I still believe it is logical to assume the bulk of the record profits of Comfort Delgro did not come from operating taxis in Singapore. That is the reason I don’t necessary agree that taxi companies should lower the rental as long as taxi drivers continues to use that as an excuse to justify their “cherry picking”. The reason is that either a fare revision or reduction of rentals will create the same effect – i.e. taxi drivers will be getting more money for the same job without working harder.

When taxi drivers are the ones directly passing this so-called “hardships” to commuters, I wouldn’t focus my anger on taxi companies alone. In fact, I simply consider taxi drivers and taxi companies to be in symbiotic relationship which made it difficult to consider them complete, separate entities. Only a reduction in rental which goes hand in hand with a complete revision of the taxi fare system will bring about an overall improvement in service. Unfortunately, unless the government does something to reduce the Certificate of Entitlement [COE] on new taxis, asking taxi operators to lower rentals is about as easy as forcing an elephant to submit.

That leaves the evil system of surcharges which allow taxi drivers to go about their “cherry picking”. And this system must go. Raise the flag down to $6 and do away with all the surcharges except those for Sentosa, the airports and also for driving after midnight. Surcharges for call booking should be nominal, enough to pay the taxi operators for operating the service. We should not pay more to tell the taxi driver where his business is. Other than industrial parks like Tuas or SingTel’s complex in Kim Chuan, taxi drivers should not be paid anything more than their flag down charges to answer a call booking.

If anyone were to say that this will drive some taxi drivers out of business and a job, they should be reminded that no one owes taxi drivers a living. After all, why the hell should we buy this sorry excuse from taxi drivers when they take us for fools so they can fleece us even more? Everyone of us are also having a hard time coping with higher costs of living and inflation, why are we making special allowances for taxi drivers?

Stop ripping us off. Do away with the damned surcharges. NOW!

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