Figuring out Singapore's taxi conundrum

Any effort to rationalise the bewildering range of taxi fares here is welcome to consumers - but not, of course, if it leads to a spike in overall costs. That consideration obviously weighed on the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and Public Transport Council, judging by the cautiousness of recent changes to address this longstanding issue. However, critics argue that merely tweaking policies will not rein in runaway market practices and deliver an affordable service that all can count on round the clock, come rain or shine - as in Hong Kong, for example.

Within an integrated system of buses and trains for mass commutes and repetitive journeys, there is also a need for personal rides offered by taxis for passengers with bulky items, people in a hurry, commuters with impaired mobility, those in less accessible locations, and anyone prepared to pay more simply for comfort. Recognising that taxis play this key public transport role - both in enhancing urban mobility and in helping to bring about a "car-lite" future - the LTA might need to consider a fresh model of delivery that is better geared to the city's needs.

Essential transport services provided by many small private operators have not proven satisfactory because of weak standards, over-supply in some areas with gaps elsewhere, and capital shortages. A market model dominated by a few major players is vulnerable to demands for high returns on investments for private stakeholders and anti-competitive behaviour, while a nationalised system tends to be burdened with high costs and operational inefficiency.

For trains and buses, contemporary policymakers are seeing the benefit of a hybrid model under which a public body plans the network, sets service benchmarks, and offers structured contracts to the private sector. Taxis are a different proposition, of course. So, if a workable model is hard to come by, should LTA roll back deregulation and set new rules?

What needs to be cut is the Gordian knot of widely varying acquisition costs of taxis - flowing from different vehicle models, car prices, currency exchange fluctuations, and rising costs of certificates of entitlement. LTA should study if the argument that cost averaging will push rentals and fares up is justified.

It's true the taxi-to-population ratio here is among the highest in the world, and fares are already comparable to those in big cities. But there's room for much improvement if Singaporeans are to be weaned off car ownership progressively, so that shared spaces in a land-starved city can be utilised more equitably. Rather than deferring the issue and tinkering at the edges, it's time a forward-looking taxi-cum-car-sharing plan is crafted.