Taxi apps: Boon or bane?

Experts say app operators should be ready for LTA requirements. -- PHOTO: AFP
Experts say app operators should be ready for LTA requirements. -- PHOTO: AFP

In just over a year, taxi apps have taken the industry by storm. Last week, it was announced that the authorities are looking into regulating this burgeoning market. Danson Cheong looks at whether the apps cause as many issues as they solve.

It was Halloween night at Clarke Quay and the cab stands were packed, so Mr Chester Tan whipped out his phone to "grab" a taxi.

Minutes later, he got into one with a friend. The plan was to drop off his friend in Ang Mo Kio before heading home to Sengkang. "It was along the way, but (the driver) started yelling when we asked him to drop us at two locations," said the 40-year-old Mr Tan, who works in marketing.

He was forced to find another taxi, and the incident left a sour taste. He wanted to lodge a complaint - the question was, with whom?

"Do I go to the company that hired (the driver) or the operator of the taxi app?" said Mr Tan. In the end, he chose to leave a complaint on GrabTaxi's Facebook page.

With at least four taxi apps launched in Singapore in barely a year, questions such as these are increasingly coming under scrutiny. And this is part of the reason the authorities have decided to step in and address the regulatory gap.

In Parliament last Tuesday, Senior Minister of State for Finance and Transport Josephine Teo said that basic regulations were required to protect the safety and interests of commuters.

Since the first major taxi app, GrabTaxi, was launched here more than a year ago, the use of such apps has exploded among commuters and cabbies. GrabTaxi has seen its booking volume grow hundredfold since its launch; it now stands at about 40,000 a month.

Earlier this month, a fourth company, Hailo, joined the ranks of Easy Taxi, GrabTaxi and Uber.

But while they have given commuters more options, many say the apps have not quite been the hoped-for panacea to their taxi woes.

Mrs Teo pointed out that third- party apps only work by matching supply to demand - pairing commuters with partner drivers - and they do not increase the supply of taxis per se.

Undergraduate Foo Jun Kai, 22, laments that it is still near impossible to get a cab near his Hougang home during peak hours and bad weather.

Other commuters like Mr Nic Lim feel there should be more transparency.

The 34-year-old had booked a cab two weeks ago with GrabTaxi, and was matched with a Premier taxi - which he pointed out had the highest peak-hour current booking fee of $4.50 among cab operators.

"I've never realised that before," said Mr Lim, who works in advertising, adding that commuters should get to choose which cab company they are matched with.

Add the litany of complaints to worries that they might not have recourse if they are overcharged when using cashless payment systems in-built into some apps, such as Uber - and you can see why the Land Transport Authority (LTA) has chosen to step in, said transport experts.

SIM University's urban transport management expert Park Byung Joon feels a framework for dispute resolution would be among the steps taken by the LTA.

"Right now there are a lot of liability issues. For example, when you make an app booking and get into an accident, who should cover the cost - the operator or the app?" Dr Park pointed out.

National Taxi Association adviser Ang Hin Kee feels app operators should be held accountable in the case of complaints from cabbies and consumers.

"Just as (Smart Cab) was deregistered as a cab company; those who don't meet standards must have some form of demerit points."

dansonc@sph.com.sg