More drivers wanted as taxi and private-hire ridership rebounds

Taxi and ride-hailing operators said the number of riders in December is likely to be close to 80 per cent of what it was pre-Covid-19. ST PHOTO: THADDEUS ANG

SINGAPORE - The number of taxi and private-hire car trips looks on track to return to the highest levels since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in February 2020, with ridership figures rebounding late last year as the Government relaxed pandemic measures.

Land Transport Authority (LTA) figures show average daily trips on taxi and private-hire cars increasing by nearly 30,000 trips to 563,000 in November, coinciding with a relaxation of Covid-19 measures that permitted social groups of up to five to meet outside and dine in restaurants.

Although December figures are still being processed by the authorities, taxi and ride-hailing operators said the number of riders that month is likely to be close to 600,000 - 80 per cent of what it was pre-Covid-19.

The holiday season, coupled with more certainty about the Omicron variant, enticed many to head out. The previous pandemic high was also set in December in 2020, with 610,000 trips a day.

But this recovery is matched by a counteracting trend. As has been the case in the last two years, the number of drivers plying the roads continued to fall.

The taxi population in November stood at 81 per cent of pre-Covid-19 levels. Private hire cars were at 88 per cent of that in 2019.

Ms Yeo Wan Ling, adviser to the National Taxi Association (NTA) and the National Private Hire Vehicles Association (NPHVA), said the industry is optimistic about the new year.

"We are hopeful that there might be increased demand for taxi and private-hire car services now that work-from-home is no longer the default and more employees can be expected to be heading to their offices," she added.

"As the economy recovers, we expect ridership to possibly return to pre-Covid-19 levels."

At its nadir during the circuit breaker in May 2020, taxi and private-hire vehicle ridership fell to 26 per cent of that in 2019.

It then gradually recovered and looked on course to return to 2019 levels until the Delta variant emerged and the Government reimposed heightened alert measures in May.

Among these was a reduction in social group sizes from five to two people. Dining in at restaurants was also stopped because of the risk of transmission from unmasked diners.

In November, after overall infection numbers stabilised and hospitals were not overwhelmed, some of the measures were relaxed.

ComfortDelGro Taxi, Singapore's largest taxi operator with 10,000 cabs, said taxi ridership last year increased by 5.4 per cent compared with 2020.

It sent out a Facebook post appealing to new drivers to join its ranks, with demand increasing, offering them up to $5,500 worth of incentives.

It also confirmed that taxi bookings on its app had increased by 25 per cent month on month in December last year. Dec 17 saw it log the highest number of trips in the whole year.

Ride-hailing company Grab said it has seen a steady increase in demand for its services since the loosening of restrictions in November.

While it declined to provide numbers, it said it expected the elevated demand to continue as more people return to the workplace.

But there are some concerns that fewer drivers and more riders could push taxi and ride-hire surcharges up.

Driver population contracted most rapidly from 2019 to 2020, with some 6,000 private-hire drivers and nearly 2,900 taxi drivers terminating their contracts.

The pace of decline last year slowed. But taxi companies still had 630 fewer drivers and ride-hailing companies 3,000 dropouts.

Singapore University of Social Sciences transport economist Walter Theseira said this was a case of supply adjusting to lower demand, which took some time as there were fixed investments and contracts in place, such as long-term leases for taxis and private-hire cars.

"If supply has shrunk, then we could face a situation where if demand recovered strongly, there simply wouldn't be enough supply to meet it, leading to the old problem of persistently long taxi and private-hire car queues or waits and high surge fares," he added.

"But it is relatively easy to boost private-hire car supply if the market did improve, as the vocational licence is relatively easy to earn, and private cars can be quickly converted. It takes longer to boost taxi supply as the taxi vehicles have to be imported and LTA approval obtained for the expansion of a taxi fleet."

Associate Professor Raymond Ong from the National University of Singapore said he expects taxi and private hire car populations to continue to contract this year, although at a slower pace even than that observed in the latter half of 2021, because of the lag between demand and supply.

He expects ridership share to remain split at around 42 per cent for taxis and 58 per cent for private hire cars, but noted: "The ridership this year really depends on how Singapore responds to the Omicron variant. It is unlikely to return to pre-2020 levels as work-from-home guidelines are likely to stay and some jobs may have structurally shifted towards this work format."

Ms Yeo said the NTA and the NPHVA will continue to urge more drivers to join the associations so they have a stronger collective voice.

She said support measures for drivers, which include the Covid-19 Driver Relief Fund, are likely to taper off as Covid-19 becomes endemic.

The Government also said in Parliament last week that there are no plans to provide additional support to point-to-point drivers to defray higher fuel costs.

More than $1 billion have been given to taxi and private-hire drivers since the pandemic struck.

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