Third-party ride-booking apps: How they are driving change in the taxi trade

Taxis at the Lucky Plaza taxi stand.
Taxis at the Lucky Plaza taxi stand. PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

The proliferation of third-party ride-booking apps is transforming the industry for commuters, operators and cabbies. The Sunday Times looks at what it means for each group as the Government reviews regulations to level the playing field between newcomers and traditional taxi operators.

Commuters: Easier, faster, often cheaper to snag a ride

This screen shot shows how UberX users can call for a private car to pick them up. More than half of the respondents in a Sunday Times online poll said they used booking apps as often as every day. PHOTO: UBER

It has become easier, faster and even cheaper sometimes to get a ride since third-party ride-booking apps hit Singapore about two years ago, say commuters, adding that the choices available to them now have been a boon.

For 22-year-old flight attendant Katherine Solano, taking an Uber ride home from the airport is now her preferred mode of car travel as it costs less than a cab. Uber charges $1.50 extra for an airport pick-up, while surcharges for mainstream taxi operators, such as ComfortDelGro, range from $3 to $5.

Ms Solano is part of a growing number of people who prefer such third-party services to booking cabs through taxi companies.

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GrabTaxi: Over 22,000 cabbies, drivers in network

Mr Lim Kell Jay, regional head of GrabCar, believes there is room for cabbies and private-hire car drivers to co-exist. The size of the pie is growing, he said, with more people taking taxi or private-car rides. He said GrabTaxi supports both groups of drivers. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Ride-booking app GrabTaxi has built up a network of over 22,000 cabbies and private chauffeur drivers two years since it came to Singapore, a company executive has revealed indirectly.

While he declined to give exact numbers, Mr Lim Kell Jay, regional head of GrabCar, told The Sunday Times that "we believe we are bigger than the two largest taxi companies in Singapore combined".

As of September, the two biggest taxi operators are ComfortDelGro, which has 17,026 cabs under its Comfort and CityCab brands, and Trans-Cab with 4,974.

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Private-hire drivers: More on the road, fewer perks

Flexible hours, lower car rental costs and monetary incentives are several reasons drivers chose to join UberX and GrabCar instead of a taxi company.

But with an influx of newer drivers making it tougher to get passengers and firms scaling back incentives, private-hire drivers said they need to "strategise" to maintain their earnings .

"There are now too many drivers and not enough riders," said Mr James Fang, 30, who has worked for both UberX and GrabCar.

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Taxi companies: Raising their game to fight back

With the growing prevalence of third-party booking apps and private hire cars, taxi companies are finding new ways to fight the competition - from lucky draws for their cabbies to partnering with app providers.

Industry observers said that, as more commuters turn to the likes of GrabTaxi and Uber, taxi operators are likely seeing their own share of bookings fall.

While the operators declined to reveal figures, taxi drivers who spoke to The Sunday Times said they are now receiving fewer booking calls from their companies.

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Cabbies: Easier to find passengers, less time wasted

Ride-booking apps have made it easier for taxi drivers to find passengers, and cut the time spent burning diesel while cruising empty.

But competition from private chauffeur cars - which can be booked under some of the apps like Uber and GrabTaxi - are hitting certain groups of taxi drivers hard, especially relief drivers who work the graveyard shift.

An industry source, who declined to be named, estimates that business for such drivers has fallen by as much as a third.

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The Straits Times senior transport correspondent Christopher Tan also discusses with digital news editor Ernest Luis what lies at the crux of the third-party taxi apps debate - on whether it is about having more consumer choices, the levelling of the playing field, and the possibility of regulation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 08, 2015, with the headline 'New routes in taxi trade'. Subscribe