Coronavirus: Cabbies, private-hire car drivers turn to food and grocery deliveries

Number set to grow as transport operators fine-tune operational details, tie up more partnerships

Cabby Toh Kian Seng, 57, with a KFC delivery order yesterday. The experience of delivering food orders is new to him, but he said it is better than plying streets bereft of passengers, given the circuit breaker measures. ComfortDelGro has close to 11
Cabby Toh Kian Seng, 57, with a KFC delivery order yesterday. The experience of delivering food orders is new to him, but he said it is better than plying streets bereft of passengers, given the circuit breaker measures. ComfortDelGro has close to 110 cabbies deployed to provide delivery services for partners like fast-food joints and Foodpanda.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Mr Toh Kian Seng has spent almost 25 years as a cabby driving passengers across the island, but these days, what is in his backseat are boxes of fried chicken and other food items.

The experience is new to Mr Toh, 57, but he said it still requires good customer service and is better than plying streets bereft of passengers, given the current circuit breaker measures.

He started delivering KFC orders to customers on Wednesday after the fast-food joint tied up with ComfortDelGro. "This way, at least I can cover some of my bills," he said.

Mr Toh is one of the growing group of cabbies and private-hire car drivers who have turned to delivering food and groceries, as it is "better than nothing", said drivers interviewed by The Straits Times.

Following an announcement last month by Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan, cabbies and private-hire car drivers can now help make grocery and food deliveries to ease the shortage of delivery slots, as the Government encourages people to avoid venturing out during the circuit breaker period.

As of yesterday, checks with some taxi operators showed that about 700 cabbies across companies like ComfortDelGro, SMRT Taxis and TransCab have been deployed to do such deliveries.

While the number is small compared with the 17,000 or so taxis and about 77,000 private-hire cars plying the roads, the figure is expected to grow as more partnerships between transport and food operators are in the works and more Grab drivers receive approval to do deliveries.

Grab, the largest private-hire operator, said "thousands" of drivers have signed up to offer food delivery services, and now handle over 10 per cent of all GrabFood orders.

Private-hire operator Gojek is "close to finalising agreements with a number of food, e-commerce and grocery partners".

Mr Ang Hin Kee, adviser to the National Taxi Association and National Private Hire Vehicles Association, has been involved in arrangements between some transport and food operators to pilot such delivery services.

He said: "In theory, it sounds like it solves the problem of spare capacity. But in practice, it is a fairly big logistic arrangement... There are also concerns and costs involved."

 
 
 

While the amount earned for deliveries varies according to the operators, Mr Ang said taxi drivers can earn around $15, on average, for three food deliveries done an hour.

However, Grab driver Alex Lau, 30, said drivers face difficulties that motorcycle riders and cyclists do not. "We have to park our car in a proper space. And when we collect food from shopping malls, the parking fees are also higher... in an upscale mall like Ion Orchard, it can be as much as $3 to $4 for a short period."

Other hiccups include long waiting times for food to be prepared at restaurants, which some drivers say can take up to 45 minutes. Said taxi driver Evelyn Lam, 61, who does deliveries with Foodpanda: "It can also take a while to find the shop if you're not familiar with the mall, so I do try to walk quickly."

The parking issue was partially addressed yesterday with the doubling of the grace period to 20 minutes in carparks under the Housing Board and the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Frasers Property Retail, which runs 14 malls mostly located in heartland areas, has extended its carpark grace period to 30 minutes since end-March.

CapitaLand will introduce a 20-minute grace period at most of its 18 malls from next Monday.

Since the circuit breaker measures kicked in on April 7, food delivery orders have increased by about 20 to 30 per cent, according to figures released by the authorities this week.

 
 
 

As of yesterday, ComfortDelGro, the largest taxi operator here, has close to 110 cabbies deployed to provide delivery services for partners like fast-food joints and Foodpanda. SMRT Taxis said it has about 400 drivers doing deliveries for 100 food outlets, including partners like the Fei Siong Group and Pizza Hut.

Both taxi operators expect take-up among cabbies to increase as they work out operational details with more partners.

Ultimately, despite the teething issues, many cabbies and private-hire car drivers were relieved to have an extra option to help cover costs.

Grab driver Don Ong, 24, said: "I can complete up to 17 deliveries in a day, earning about $120. It's three to four times more than what we can earn now from the normal ride-hailing jobs."

However, drivers said doing deliveries is not a long-term solution and they hope the Covid-19 situation will ease up soon so they can return to ferrying passengers.

But in the meantime, Madam Lam tries to look on the bright side of things. "These deliveries help me discover more food places. And when things go back to normal, I can recommend these places to my passengers."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2020, with the headline 'Cabbies, private-hire car drivers turn to food and grocery deliveries'. Subscribe