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Singapore’s booming taxi-booking apps

Taxi booking apps 1 - Diary of a Singaporean Cabby
Flagging billboards at Bukit Merah View hawker center.

By James Lim

"Uncle, STOP!” a deafening scream suddenly pierced into my ears.

"You almost bang into the car in front. You can go and die but I don't want to die young, ok!” my lady passenger furiously scolded me.

Yes, I had committed the most unforgivable sin for working on a third-party taxi booking Apps with my cellphone while driving. I could have landed with a hefty fine, jail, revoked license and worst of all, destroyed or killed an innocent life if a fatal accident had happened. I had absolutely no excuse for my "horrendous crime" and begged for her forgiveness.

The dangers of using handphone while driving is well understood and yet it is an incorrigible habit of many drivers worldwide.

Lately, taxi drivers in Singapore are incentivized and bombarded with an explosion of third-party taxi booking Apps like GrabTaxi (Malaysia, Oct 2013), EasyTaxi(Brazil, Dec 2013), Uber (USA, Sept, 2014) and Hailo (Nov, 2014). A lot had been written about these Apps in the press and blogsphere. (You may want to read them at these links – Boom In Taxi Booking Apps, Vulcanpost – GrabTaxi, Say-Hello-to-Hailo-Apps, Mr Tan Kim Lian Apps)

As anticipated, our transport authority is now mulling to control and regulate these Apps as their impact on public transportation system grows. Currently, technological companies that operate these Apps are not regulated. Now, tell me, which business or part of our daily life is not regulated by PAP?

Nevertheless, as a taxi driver, I think the need to use a handphone to work on these Apps while driving has the most dangerous impact on me and my passengers. If an increase in regulation is indeed required for the use of these Apps, scholars at LTA should focus more on the safety impact of these Apps rather than the economic impact on Government coffers. I hope Mr Ang Hin Kee (PAP MP and advisor for National Taxi Association) will also focus more on the welfare of taxi drivers instead of finding faults with these Apps companies, echoing LTA views or protecting GLC taxi operators interests.

Although a proposed amendment to Road Traffic Act next year will make using or holding a mobile device while driving a more serious traffic offense with stiffer penalties, all laws will never eliminate diehards. There will always be law-breakers. Which taxi driver never make an illegal U-turn to catch a passenger faster? In their natural anxiety to improve their income, surely more taxi drivers will lose their vocational license and livelihood when caught using these Apps while driving.

While it is an offence when a driver holds a phone and uses it to communicate with someone else through voice or texting, it is not against the law to use the phone or other mobile devices if it is mounted on a holder under the existing and new law.

In this respect and for the safety of drivers and passengers, the technologies companies that operates the taxi booking Apps should be legislated to compulsorily provide a strong, adjustable and detachable holder to their drivers. Apart from providing the free device holder, they should also provide a "handphone or communicating device" solely delegated for use on their Apps only. Uber had done this! I hope the other three techno companies would follow soon if they want more taxi drivers to join them. The investment in providing these additional "safe working devices" would be recovered in the long run with more drivers in their fold.

As you probably know, when I was a COMFORT driver, I was not interested in these Apps because COMFORT provides me with more call bookings than I could handle. Then, I could pick and choose which call booking I want to oblige or entertain. I've no competitor fighting for my call booking. I would avoid Mrs India and grab Mrs Europe as I've the luxury of choices. My poorer cousins then in SMRT, Transcab, Premier and Prime do not enjoy such luxury as they have few call booking.

Sad to say, to this day many gullible taxi commuters still assumed that they could get a taxi faster through COMFORT call booking just because COMFORT has the biggest fleet of taxi here. Unfortunately, when making a call booking to COMFORT, especially during peak hours, they would often get a recorded message saying that "no taxis are available in their area, please call back ten minutes later". It was usually a big hassle to book a taxi with COMFORT. In reality, there were tens of taxis in their area waiting for call booking, except that they were not COMFORT taxis but SMRT, Transcab, Premier or Prime taxis. The latter were ignored and therefore had few call booking jobs.

However, when a person uses EasyTaxi, GrabTaxi, Uber or Hailo, instead of calling COMFORT, he/she could get a taxi faster, for the simple reason that the call booking goes to all brands of participating taxis in the vicinity instead of just COMFORT taxis.

A total of six taxi companies operate nearly 28,000 taxis here. If all the 28,000 taxis use the various Apps, it means more taxis are available for booking than the 16,000 COMFORT taxis! Unfortunately, if more taxis are occupied with booking jobs, less taxis will be available for street pick-up jobs. But from a national perspective, if more taxi rides are made through call booking, less taxis will need to cruise empty on the road hunting for passengers. Taxi drivers can stay stationary off the roads to answer call booking, thereby resulting in less traffic congestion, accidents, pollution and fuel wastage.

Taxi drivers crowding to join apps.
Taxi drivers crowding to sign up for apps.

For too long, taxi drivers and commuter alike had to endure and live with monopolistic, inefficient and arrogant COMFORT. In the not too distant future, when these technology companies accelerates their marketing push to get more taxi drivers and commuters onto their bandwagons, COMFORT will feel the heat of competition especially when there is an exodus of drivers joining the poorer cousins who now has equally abundant call booking. It is a fact that many taxi drivers join COMFORT because of their copious call booking and nothing else.

Honestly, the main benefit I get from using these Apps is driving less hours and still earn the same income. I usually stop driving when I hit a monetary target and not on an hour mark - it means that when I hit $150 collection, I stop driving irrespective of the time. It could be 2pm, 3pm or 4pm. But unfortunately, I think soon I had to surrender my vocational license to LTA because I'll surely be caught for working the Apps with my handphone while driving. Anyway, at my age it is a good excuse for early retirement from driving to become a security guard instead! Cheers and Good Luck to each and every one in our driving business!

This is an edited version of an article that was first published in Diary of a Singaporean Cabby. The author has also done a brief evaluation of the various apps. Do read the full article if you are interested.