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SG: Third-party apps lead to calls to ensure ‘level playing field’ for taxi drivers

http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/third-party-apps-lead-to/2171588.html?cid=fbsg

Unregulated private car hire service spin-offs, like GrabCar and UberX, have led to calls to ensure a “level playing field” for taxi drivers.

SINGAPORE: The introduction of third-party apps in the Republic’s taxi industry have led to calls to ensure a “level playing field” for taxi drivers.

New Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan had announced in a blog post last Friday (Oct 2) that the authorities are reviewing apps like Uber and GrabTaxi. Laws were passed in Parliament in May this year requiring third-party taxi booking services with more than 20 taxis in their fleet to register with the Land Transport Authority (LTA).

Taxi driver Foo Chi Young has been on the roads for 16 years and he said technology has changed the driving business.

Third-party apps, like Uber and GrabTaxi, have given rise to shorter waiting times between drop offs, and more customers. However, with unregulated private car hire service spin-offs, like GrabCar and UberX entering the market, technology might be a double-edged sword.

UNREGULATED PRIVATE CAR HIRE

Uber and GrabTaxi were launched in 2013. They rolled out their private car-sharing services, UberX and GrabCar respectively, last year.

“As a taxi driver, we go through all the stringent checks,” said Mr Foo. “Every three years, we renew our licence, we go through medical checkup, criminal record clearance before they issue (the licence) us, and every three to five years, we go for a refresher course. The private cars, do they follow the programme we have as a taxi driver?”

Private car-sharing apps do not require drivers to have a vocational licence – something mandatory for regular cabbies – and this growing discontent has led the Transport Ministry to review such apps to ensure a “level playing field” for taxi drivers.

Responding to Channel NewsAsia, Uber said that “while no means of transportation can ever be 100 per cent safe, it does ensure the safety and accountability of commuters”.

For example, Uber said it requires drivers to have a valid licence, commercial liability insurance and they must pass an independent background check. It said it is simply a mobile application that connects commuters with licensed drivers.

Uber added that its service has allowed thousands of Singaporeans to become their own bosses.

It said in a statement: “For years, Singapore’s growing population of residents and visitors have had to face the daily challenges of access to transportation during peak hours or during change-shifts. This is even more challenging during inclement weather. Singapore has been starved of more reliable and efficient transportation options to meet ever-growing demand for years and Uber was able to swiftly provide the most convenient and reliable solution to address that problem.

“It is important to understand that Uber is simply a mobile application/technology platform that connects commuters with licensed drivers (or transportation providers). Uber is not a taxi company or a transportation company. In Singapore, Uber caters to both the traditional taxi driver community and the professional/part-time driver.”

BEING ACCOUNTABLE TO CUSTOMERS

However, Singapore’s National Taxi Association (NTA) said it is ultimately about being accountable to customers.

“There is a need to be quite clear to the commuters as to what you are booking, and who is the person driving you and the vehicle you are taking,” said NTA’s executive adviser, Ang Hin Kee. “Does it have the kind of coverage, protection and assurance of service and assurance of regulation governing it, so that, as a commuter, you have that peace of mind?”

Said Mr Foo: “If you want to treat this like a career, you really have to respect what you are doing on the road. Each customer is just like a contract. I hope the relevant authorities really come up with some policy that can control the apps, that certain liabilities are there, and the leasing company, the vehicle, the responsibility under the leasing company and the insurance. And the driver … has to know how to serve, and the set of responsibilities when serving as public transport.”

Transport analyst Professor Lee Der Horng said there is no lack of taxis in Singapore; rather, it is an inherent imbalance in supply and demand. He proposes one solution to solve this issue.

“If we can have a one-stop service so that we only have one platform – and this platform brings all the taxi passengers, the booking requests to all the taxi companies – then the passengers can always maintain a good visibility to all the available taxis in their surroundings,” said Prof Lee, who is from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the National University of Singapore.

“So only if we can have this one-stop service, otherwise my worry is if we just jump to the conclusion by saying that we do not have enough taxis so that is why we have to open up the private hire business to allow something like UberX or GrabCar to remain in this business, then I think this could be a little bit overly conclusive,” he added.

Prof Lee also said that it is necessary for private hire drivers to obtain the same qualifications as regular taxi drivers in Singapore to ensure a level playing field.

LTA said it is studying further, ways to ensure the safety of commuters. It is also considering stricter penalties for the improper use of private cars and making a vocational licence mandatory for all drivers.