Friday, August 15, 2008

ERP Rate Hikes Inadvertently Remind Taxi Drivers That They Perform a Public Service

I stand at the taxi stand at different times of the day, every day, and feel an odd sense of deja vu. There are no taxis available (unless you call). There appear to be no taxis for miles (unless you call, then they appear immediately). In fact, didn't we have this very problem last year, just before they increased the cab fares by 35% during peak hours?

As a reluctant but frequent taxi passenger, I try to empathise with the troubles of the average taxi driver. After all, it cannot be easy sitting in that tiny little space up to 12 hours a day with a myriad of strangers getting in and out the back of the cab, some of whom could possibly be criminals. A number of taxi drivers I've come across (and I'm not really all that chatty in a taxi) are retrenched workers who cannot find another job and have been forced to drive a taxi to support their families. I guess you could say that if anyone would like to see the poor and disenfranchised of Singapore, well, just hop into a cab and take a good long look at the driver.

But increasingly I'm starting to wonder if they are really as poor and disenfranchised as they make themselves out to be. After all, their constant moaning and grumbling did get them a nationwide fee increase of 35% during peak hours. At the back of my mind, I wonder if we have passed any anti-competition laws at all, and if so, whether they have taken effect, and if so, whether any members of the Competition Committee take taxis.

Then in response to their moaning and grumbling about the diesel prices, they just received a right to charge an extra 30 cents for diesel, per trip, per passenger.

Prior to this, in response to their moaning and grumbling about having to pay for ERP, they received an increase in booking fees during peak hours.

Not that each increase is a lot, but when everything gets added up, it's about 50% more on the fees. What other industry gets the right to increase their fees by 50% during hours when they are most needed, when people who themselves need to work for money have to choose between taking 1.5 hours to go home by other modes of public transport or paying 10 - 15 times more to take a taxi home and cut 1 hour off their travel time so they can spend that with their families?

All the surcharges and fare increases may seem like a lot, but I can tell you that it's clearly not good enough. Don't take my word for it, just try to get a cab in the Central Business District and you will see that we have created some kind of a cab-free zone in the centre of Singapore. Clearly, cab drivers are so incredibly pissed off about having to pay the additional ERP charges at the various new gantries, that they will not enter the Central Business District but will skulk around outside waiting for someone to call for a taxi so that they can utilise the booking charge to set-off the additional ERP charges. Cab drivers already inside the Central Business District see no point as well in picking anyone up without getting a booking charge out of it, so they will cruise around or hide somewhere to wait for a call.

I asked a cab driver once (mainly because I needed background noise in the cab - he didn't have the radio on) why there are no taxis in the CBD now. He went on for 20 minutes. In fact, he went on for an additional 2 minutes after I had reached my destination, and I had to sit in the taxi to wait for him to finish the explanation. Basically, taxi drivers do not wish to pay for ERP charges. They perform a public service by providing an alternative mode of transport. In fact, they are a recognised form of public transport. While they do not seek any public service award, they would very much like to be given some incentive to continue to provide the public service. Therefore they should not need to pay ERP.

I like this idea of the public service that they perform. In fact, if you really think about it, taxi drivers are also unofficial tax collection agents for the Singapore government - they collect tax through ERP charges from passengers and pay it to the Singapore government through pre-determined collection points. So they do in fact provide more than 1 type of public service.

What I would like to know is why the effect of the public service reminder, albeit inadvertent, is so damn fleeting. Obviously the same people who are now even more aware that they are performing a public service have decided not to perform it, by deserting the Central Business District during peak and pretty much all office hours.

I'm not an economist, but if the money is so bad, why do taxi drivers get to pick and choose their customers with impunity? Shouldn't they try to get as many passengers as possible, and by going to the places where there would be many passengers? Contrast the SARS period, when no one would take a taxi and you couldn't flip your hair with your hand while walking on the street, otherwise a taxi could stop. That - was desperation. That - was when they really needed the money to survive. You could say - then - that they were truly the poor and disenfranchised. Now, they're just behaving like a bunch of assholes who own the road and couldn't be bothered to do their jobs properly.

Oh by the way I notice their jobs are also protected - am I right in saying that you can only get a taxi licence if you are a Singaporean?


At 9:29 PM, Blogger mr.udders said...

Thank you for speaking my mind.

At 10:05 PM, Blogger expat@large said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 10:07 PM, Blogger expat@large said...

I Love Singapore Taxi Drivers. Love'Em. To Death.

As a member of the newly formed Committee for Understanding the Needs of Taxi-Drivers - CUNTD - I think you might like to join. You know my number, simply SMS your banking details and pick up location and do nothing else. Someone will knock on your door at 2am to take you for a ride, booking fee included.

At 5:50 AM, Blogger -ben said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 5:52 AM, Blogger -ben said...

Now, they're just behaving like a bunch of assholes who own the road and couldn't be bothered to do their jobs properly.

Oww! I just got blindsided by an unexpected word.

When you ride a bicycle on the roads, you will no doubt conjure more endearing epithets for these... err... thugs. IMHO, the Mercedes cabs are the worst. Some days, I get tempted to plunk down for a big SUV just so I can play Auto Duel with them. Then, I look at their pathetic physiques and my 18.6 BMI (7.94% body fat), and figure, "Nah! I already won. These clowns will be on the NKF dialysis list in a decade, tops."

At 4:30 PM, Blogger Fore! said...

"What other industry gets the right to increase their fees by 50% during hours when they are most needed?"

Good point. I don't know a single lawyer who does that. Most of us have retainer agreements which say we charge nothing less than 100% more for urgent work outside normal office hours. 50% is just way too little.

At 9:33 PM, Blogger *** CeLiNe *** said...

Sigh.... Words cannot describe how much I detest taking a cab nowadays. A ride from anywhere to anywhere costs like at least $20 bucks!!!

At 10:46 AM, Blogger expat@large said...

I forgot about this post of mine... just read it a laughed this morning (I always reperuse my blog, it gives me something amusing to read on the bus.)

At 11:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, only Singaporeans over the age of 30 years old can be taxi drivers. PRs and work-permit holders cannot.

At 9:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Spot On!

But I think the grumbling and grousing don't have as great an effect as a concerted and determined effort to avoid taking cabs. Don't like the product, walk away and don't turn back.

At 10:30 PM, Anonymous Abby said...

You write very well.

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