Consider long- and short-term benefits of taxi apps

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Third-party taxi apps have caused much debate lately. Singapore has not yet adopted a protectionist stance against taxi apps though.

The Straits Times' senior transport correspondent Christopher Tan tells digital news editor Ernest Luis what lies at the crux of this debate - having more consumer choices, levelling of the playing field, and the possibility of regulation.

Two recent reports on taxis and taxi apps are timely ("Can't find cabs on the road? Try the yard"; Oct 10, and "Online taxi hailing: China to bar private cars"; Oct 12) as the Land Transport Authority (LTA) gathers feedback on the relevance of third-party apps like GrabTaxi and Uber ("Govt to look into car hire services like UberX"; Oct 3).

Being able to get a taxi faster does not translate into more trips per commuter.

The total demand pie will not grow significantly in spite of greater convenience in getting a cab through the apps. This is because commuters who are currently not using taxis choose not to do so because of the price factor.

Therefore, if demand does not grow and more drivers choose to exchange their regulated taxis for cheaper private-hire vehicles, this will result in a shrinking taxi fleet. This trend, if not managed properly, will result in huge economic and social cost to the country.

Furthermore, there are still many drivers who are not IT savvy or literate enough to use smartphone apps.

There is also the difficulty of pursuing an accident claim involving a private-hire car driver ("Tighten rules for cab booking services like Uber" by Ms Adrena Chai Mui Choo ; Oct 26).

The purpose of regulation is to screen for undesirable drivers and ensure the safety of passengers.

Yes, reported feedback will allow us to choose a "liked" driver on a private-hire car app. But a claim for personal injury sustained after having made the wrong choice is likely to be contentious, onerous, expensive and a waste of time.

Besides, there are numerous ways to circumvent the self-check system as it relies on passengers taking the time to report their bad experiences. How many of us actually report our bad personal experiences to the service providers?

Commuters have also not felt any significant trickle-down impact of lower car rental rates because drivers and app providers currently price their services according to official taxi meter rates and pocket the profits.

If, and when, a price war erupts, commuters will suffer.

Many countries are studying the real benefits versus the cost of private-hire car apps.

I trust that we can depend on the LTA to consider not only how to level the playing field from the standpoint of pricing and short-term consumer benefits, but also the longer-term impact and sustainability of private-hire car apps coexisting with regulated public transport providers.

Christopher Tang Wei Ling

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