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Taxis should not be a fair-weather service

Published on Oct 20, 2012 6:55 PM
File photo of people boarding/waiting for taxis at the taxi stand of Ang Mo Kio MRT station during rainy weather on 5 October, 2012. -- ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

WALKING in the rain might be a lyrical experience but not when there is a need to be home and dry for an appointment and there are no taxis in sight.

This is attributed to the practice of cabbies pulling over in a downpour, the extent of which is disputed but the fact is not. If it becomes hard to hail a taxi in a downpour, this would defeat an important part of the purpose of having them around.

The whole point of an essential service is that it should be available when needed, and not just when operators choose to provide it.
Reasons such as the cabbies’ concern over safety given poor visibility and braking conditions are understandable but will cut no ice with commuters. Wet conditions apply to all vehicles and they do not grind to a halt when it rains.

Bus services don’t run only on sunny days. Obviously, what is required is greater care while driving. Indeed, cabbies have an advantage over others, given their all-weather experience and knowledge of roads. As for taxi drivers not wanting to risk an accident, which could cost them up to $2,000 in excess and repair fees, it is difficult to see why hapless commuters should be held hostage to this.

What is even more troubling is the existence of an illegal sub-service that lets commuters offer extra money to cabbies to jump the queue. This arrangement, which surfaces when demand grows during bad weather or during peak hours, is little better than the free-wheeling pirate-taxi system of old. It will tarnish the overall taxi service if the practice becomes common and cabbies get away with it.

The taxi system is based on a fine-tuned combination of fares and surcharges, over normal and peak hours for example, to match demand and supply. This seeks to be fair to drivers and commuters alike. Some commuters desperate for a cab no doubt might seek to cut corners.

But cabbies who offer priority service to the highest bidder affect others’ chances of getting a cab. This undermines the integrity of the system.

The issue is not the cost of this special service – ranging from $5 to $20 – but its effects. This is hardly a willing-buyer, willing-seller situation driven by market forces. It goes against the spirit of a regulated taxi system.

By all means, let taxi companies offer premium services for those who are willing to pay for them. But the rules and tariffs for these should be set out transparently to all commuters.

The Land Transport Authority, which has said that it will act against drivers accepting fares above the metered rate, should move decisively. A sting operation can unearth errant cabbies, and the punishment meted out would serve as a deterrent. Taxi companies should impress on cabbies the harm that can arise if they choose to game the system.

This article first appeared in The Straits Times on Oct 18.