Uber has made taxi drivers more hardworking

Such private transport services are shaking up the taxi business and giving consumers a quantum leap in convenience and service

I was late to the Uber party.

Having heard about the infamous private car service, I, of course, downloaded the app on my phone to ensure that I was "with it". I even registered my credit card details, but I didn't use the service for ages.

About four months ago, however, I tried Uber for the first time. I rarely take cabs because I drive, but that morning, I needed to get from the car workshop in Leng Kee Road where I had sent the car in for servicing, to the office in Toa Payoh.

I had to go to Google to figure out the confusingly named car categories. Eventually I booked an UberX car, the most basic tier of service. The app told me it was a Toyota Wish, a mid-sized MPV, and the driver had a decent rating of 4.5 stars out of 5.

When the silver car arrived, I noticed it was unmarked except for a small discreet Uber sticker. It felt like getting into a friend's car. After all, in which commercial taxi would you find rows of extra racing dials installed on the dashboard and the sloping pillar near the driver?

It was obvious the driver took pride in both his car and his driving. He didn't talk much but when he did, it was to discuss the best route to take and it was clear that he was an expert driver who had driven far and wide in Singapore.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

When I arrived at my destination, he announced what the fare would be and stopped the car, expecting me to get out. Like the proverbial mountain tortoise, I asked:

"Er, that's it?"

"Yes," he said patiently. "You will receive an e-mail and the amount will be deducted from your credit card. That's all, good day."

Slightly stunned at the stark simplicity of it all, I alighted. But I was so impressed I couldn't stop talking about it for days.

Last week, I tried Uber again, going from the office to the workshop. This time, the driver who picked me up was a very young man who wore black plastic hipster glasses and had his trousers cuffed uber-high on the ankle. It was quite obvious from his age that the Toyota he ushered me into was a rental.

He had two mobile phones attached to the dashboard of the car. One of them rang and beeped incessantly, and each time it did, I could see how unsure he was about whether to take the call. Each time he fiddled with the device, my heart skipped a beat because he took his eyes off the highway.

The other phone was showing the route he should take on something that looked like Google Maps. But despite the fact that it was clearly marked out, he asked me to confirm which way he should be going at every single turn and fork in the road.

In a way, the two Uber trips exemplify the two opposing arguments in a fierce policy debate about the entry of such private car services into the taxi market here.

Traditional taxi operators and taxi drivers are unhappy because a lack of regulation allows what seems to be an infinite supply of competitors into the market.

They are not wrong. "Drive Uber" has apparently become one of the hottest buzzwords in the part-time or freelance space. You don't need a lot of specialised skills or experience and work hours are extremely flexible.

"No office, no boss" says the Uber recruitment ad.

If you ask around enough, you'll probably find someone you know who is doing it. I have a friend who is trained as a chef who is currently "driving Uber" with a private car he rented for $70 a day.

Not surprisingly, those who use the app regularly tell me the number of Uber cars available at any point in time has shot up in recent months. Meanwhile, a recent Straits Times exclusive shows hundreds of traditional taxi cabs sitting in a yard in Sungei Kadut, driverless and unloved.

The economist in me tells me there is some serious misallocation of resources going on. If rental cars are being used as "taxis" instead of licensed taxi cabs, what happens when there is a big demand for rental cars, like during Chinese New Year or Hari Raya?

And the armchair policymaker in me says this is largely the result of an uneven playing field. Without the need for proper licensing and training, it is so much easier to "drive Uber" than to drive a traditional taxi.

Cab drivers are right to be alarmed. Hipsters who require passengers to confirm GPS directions are eating their lunch.

In some countries, services such as Uber have already been banned to protect the traditional taxi industry.

In others where they have not, cab drivers are taking the law into their own hands. Recent reports have emerged of traditional cab drivers stopping Uber cars in Kuala Lumpur, driving terrified passengers out and beating up the Uber drivers. Uber drivers are responding by driving like madmen through the streets.

All this must surely factor in the new review the Government has announced of private car services in Singapore, to be chaired by Senior Minister of State for Transport Ng Chee Meng. But he would do well to listen to more than just the economist or the armchair policymaker. He needs to listen to consumers.

And the consumer in me says that services such as Uber and GrabTaxi have been nothing less than a godsend in a country that cannot seem to solve its taxi woes.

How so? Well, for starters, it is now much easier to get a cab at any time of the day. If supply is really short (like on a rainy Monday morning) and you desperately need to get to a meeting, you at least have the option of hiring a premium UberXL car. It will cost a bomb, but you will get there.

Then there is the quantum leap in convenience and customer service that services like Uber have brought. No more do people have to worry about whether they have the "small notes" to pay the taxi driver and how black his face might be when he finds he has to deal with (horrors!) a $50 note or a credit card at the end of the journey.

A new Uber-like service for pets was recently launched, promising stress-free rides for pet owners who are taking their furries to the vet or the groomer. Any pet owner can tell you how difficult it is to find a traditional taxi that will take pets. One friend told me that the only way is to book a cab, but each time he tells the operator that the taxi needs to take pets, the message never gets through and a taxi will invariably arrive that refuses to do so.

Finally, I'm hearing plenty of anecdotal evidence that Singapore's traditional taxi drivers are finally becoming more hardworking and service-oriented.

To be sure, there are still drivers like the elderly uncle I often see chatting at a nearby coffee shop during morning rush hour while his Comfort cab sits in the driveway of his landed terrace house.

But increasingly, I'm seeing traditional taxi drivers with as many as four or five phones on their dashboards corresponding to the various taxi booking apps that have sprouted in Singapore. I'm not sure if their taxi operators allow them to do this, but these must surely be the most dilligent cab drivers on the roads, ever willing to pick up a booking from any source.

On the street, people are also reporting that cab drivers have become less choosy about passengers and less strategic about when they appear (for example, only after midnight but never close to it).

After all, nothing motivates like extra competition.

The taxi lobby has always been a powerful influence in politics and it does have many good points to make in the Uber debate.

Mr Ng and his review team will have to be extra skilful in their deliberations, to ensure a fair and progressive outcome for all.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 18, 2015, with the headline 'Uber driving cabbies crazy'. Print Edition | Subscribe