Hong Kong's Taxi Problem
It’s getting more and more difficult these days to hail taxis in Hong Kong, especially when it’s late at night, or as soon as it starts to rain. By law, taxi drivers have to take customers where they want to go, barring shift conflicts. However, it’s become very common for taxi drivers to ask for a destination before unlocking the doors. If the destination is not convenient for the driver, they ask for a fixed fare, as taxi drivers do in a developing country, not “Asia’s World City.”
After midnight, taxis line up along double yellow lines all over Central, Tsim Sha Tsui and other populated nightlife areas with their “Out of Service” signs on display, doors locked and windows only slightly cracked. The drivers’ ploy is to wait for passengers willing to go far enough to make it worth their while, or in many cases, pay a fixed price fare. With the MTR closed, and most bus services stopped for the night, it leaves passengers with no choice but to pay the inflated fares, which only encourages this kind of illicit behavior. This is how corrupt, third world countries work, with everyone having to pay a “surcharge” just to get everyday things done.
It’s understandable that taxis may not want to cross the harbour after certain times due to shift changes. However isn’t it illegal to only accept passengers if they agree to take the Western tunnel and pay the $65 return toll, instead of the cheaper and more economical Cross-Harbour tunnel? According to the government-issued signs on the inside of each cab door, the decision on which route to take is supposed to be made by the passenger.
Complaining to the Hong Kong police on patrol yields no results either, as the police usually just rudely ask people to move along, without reprimanding the taxi drivers for parking illegally or openly demanding illegal fares. There seems to be a loophole here—if drivers are ever questioned, they simply say they are “on call,” and waiting for a passenger who has pre-booked.
Although there is a hotline and website for taxi complaints via the Transportation Department, threatening a taxi driver with a complaint has little effect, as it comes down to the word of the passenger against the word of the taxi driver. In addition, one has to submit a photo of a driver’s taxi badge on the dashboard, clearly showing the driver’s name and photo. How is that possible if one has not even managed to get into the taxi in question?
While I notice there are several news briefs every week of undercover police officers posing as mainland Chinese tourists and subsequently fining or even arresting taxi drivers who overcharge, or sometimes even drive off with valuable luggage, it seems this is hardly enough. Hong Kong’s new multi-billion-dollar cruise port opening was marred with complaints of tourists being charged $400 for a $100 fare. Shouldn’t this be controlled?
It’s appalling that Hong Kong prides itself on being a developed, world-class city, but cannot rein in rogue, corrupt taxi drivers.
As of 1994, there were 18,138 taxi licenses in Hong Kong. Today, 20 years later, that number remains the same, while Hong Kong’s population has gone from about 6 million to 7 million, and the number of tourists per month has significantly increased (in 2013, there were over 49 million visitors to Hong Kong). Because taxi licenses are transferable, these licenses can now sell for over $7.5 million, compared to $2 million in 2006, making them a very valuable tradeable asset. When property goes up, rentals go up: in order to cover their taxi rental cost, taxi drivers need to make significantly more money.
Several other cities often benchmarked to Hong Kong—Singapore, Tokyo, London, New York—do not have these taxi issues. Why? Because as the cost of living goes up in those cities, so do taxi prices. However in Hong Kong, while property prices (and subsequently, rentals) have doubled over the last six years, taxi prices have gone up a mere 10 percent.
Compared with the average taxi prices in other countries, Hong Kong’s are significantly lower. In order to make the whole taxi system efficient, either the supply of taxis needs to increase (which is likely to result in more traffic problems), or demand needs to decrease (which can be solved by higher taxi fares). Either way, the Transportation Department needs to figure out a solution to this problem, before critics begin comparing Hong Kong against cities of the developing world, rather than the developed world.
This article was submitted anonymously.
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