Wednesday, 14 March 2012

4 reasons you can't get a cab when you need one

By Goh Chin Lian, Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 10 Mar 2012

Singapore has 27,000 taxis and one of the highest ratios of cabs to people among cities, but commuters still find it hard to get a cab when they need one.

Over the years, the taxi industry has improved its call booking technology, added new players, and raised fares. Yet, complaints about taxi service abound. This week, the Government announced more measures to improve cab services at peak hours. They include stricter call booking standards and plans to get more cabs on the road. But will they do the trick?




FARE STRUCTURE

Cabbies earn more from call bookings

THE PROBLEM

One of accountant Wilfred Lim's pet peeves is taxi drivers who ply the roads but refuse to stop for passengers, because they are waiting for call bookings.

'It's very frustrating when cabs don't stop at the taxi stand. I have to resort to booking a cab and it isn't always easy to get through,' said Mr Lim, 26.

Commuters have also complained about taxis that disappear before surcharge hours and gather at lucrative locations such as casinos.

THE REASON

Industry observers said the current fare structure discourages drivers from picking up passengers along the road, particularly in areas such as the Central Business District where demand is always high.

Some cabbies choose to drive around and wait for a booking to come in so they can earn a few dollars more.

Currently, cabbies from operators such as ComfortDelGro and TransCab earn $3.30 more from a call booking during peak hours.

National University of Singapore transport researcher Lee Der Horng said it was natural for drivers to try and maximise their earnings through booking fees and surcharges, although this would result in commuters feeling that drivers simply want to hide and wait for call bookings.

As for taxis not stopping to pick up passengers, National Taxi Association president Wee Boon Kim pointed out that traffic rules mandate that taxis cannot stop at certain times or places, such as within 9m of bus stops.

THE SOLUTION

Associate Professor Lee said a simplified fare structure would help address the issue of taxi demand and supply.

If surcharges are done away with and a high flag-down fee implemented instead, there would not be the phenomenon of drivers circling around waiting for bookings, he said. Their earnings would also not be badly affected.

Commuter Ben Liu, 35, who works as a consultant, said prices should be raised to a point where people can get a cab without much difficulty.

But others like technician Muhammad Amran, 27, disagreed. He said: 'It's not worth it to pay extra charges to get a cab.'





DRIVERS CHANGING SHIFT

Narrow window for handover

THE PROBLEM

There's a certain time of the day when Madam Allison Ho knows it's no use joining a taxi queue or waiting by the road for a cab.

Like last week when she walked out of the National University Hospital and saw a snaking queue of about 20 people at the taxi stand. It was 4.30pm.

'It's very hard to hail a taxi from around 4pm to 5pm. Cabbies are changing shift,' said Madam Ho, 32, a business development manager who was rushing home to Yishun.

THE REASON

An estimated 70 per cent of cabs have two drivers a day, each working between 10 and 12 hours and splitting the daily rental charges 50-50.

To ensure that each driver has a chance to earn peak-hour fares - the day driver gets the morning peak while the night driver takes the evening one - they change shift between 4pm and 6pm.

They cannot change over too early, say at 2pm or 3pm, as the day driver would then have to wake up in the wee hours of the morning or lose a few hours of business.

THE SOLUTION

Regular taxi users like polytechnic lecturer Simon Eng, 39, suggests staggering the timings to change shifts.

Madam Ho wants the taxi companies to coordinate shift change times.

But Transcab general manager Jasmine Tan noted that the suggestions are hard to enforce because taxi drivers are independent operators.

Cities like New York impose a surcharge between 4pm and 8pm to get more drivers to work in the afternoon. The surcharge did not eradicate the problem but was seen to have eased it.

In parts of China, drivers change shifts only after 24 hours. However, this means longer hours behind the wheel, which could be dangerous.

Transcab, the second-largest operator here, is looking into encouraging cabbies to change shift in the Central Business District instead of near their homes, so that they can meet the higher demand downtown.

The night driver could take the MRT to meet the day driver in the CBD, said Ms Tan.





UNDER-UTILISATION

Vehicle available but driver may not be

THE PROBLEM

Once a week, finance manager Alina Walton tries to get a cab from a taxi stand in Raffles Place at around 6pm to 7pm, but she has to wait 15 minutes for one.

She had been queuing for five minutes when The Straits Times met her on Thursday, and was resigned to a longer wait.

'There aren't enough taxis,' said Ms Walton, 26, a Russian national.

Polytechnic lecturer Simon Eng, 39, typically waits 15minutes near his Bishan home before he manages to flag a cab to get to church on Sunday mornings.

'It's always congested during peak hours,' he said. 'What puzzles me are Sunday mornings. It's not rush hour, it's not a weekday, yet it's so hard to get a cab.'

THE REASON

Singapore's 27,000-strong taxi fleet is not being fully utilised.

As Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew noted in Parliament this week, total taxi mileage has remained about the same although the taxi fleet has grown some 20 per cent since 2006.

One reason for this, said Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Seng Han Thong, is that about 30 per cent of the taxi fleet are single-driver cabs.

'This means the current fleet of taxis we have is under-utilised to serve the commuting needs of the public,' he said.

Mr Seng is an adviser to the National Taxi Association (NTA).

A National University of Singapore study supervised by transport economist Anthony Chin found that most cabbies have a target take-home income.

Once this is achieved, they either take it easy or call it a day - which means their vehicles are taken off the street if they do not have a relief driver.

Veteran cabby Yap Boon Kee, 59, is one such example. He is content to earn about $1,500 a month and heads home once he hits his daily target. He does not have a relief driver.

An industry observer noted that a minority of drivers also use the taxi as their personal vehicle at times - thus depriving customers of their service.

'At any one time, the only taxis not on the road should be in the workshop,' he said.

THE SOLUTION

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) is currently studying regulatory measures to put more taxis on the road, particularly during peak hours. The six-month study will be completed later this year.

The LTA is exploring the feasibility of mandating that each taxi company must have a certain percentage of its fleet on the road at a time, particularly during peak periods.

Other possible ideas include setting a minimum distance that each taxi must clock per day.

NTA president Wee Boon Kim said the association is working with the LTA and its partners on how to help match taxi hirers with reliable relief drivers, and how existing vehicles can be used in full.

Dr Park Byung Joon, programme head of the master of science programme in urban transport management at SIM University, believes making more taxis available could be an effective strategy to meet passenger demand.





BOOKING BOTTLENECK

Calls go through but no taxis in the area

THE PROBLEM

Taxi operators have poured millions of dollars into high-tech call-booking systems, but banking manager Shanti Ramanathan still has trouble booking a cab from 8am to 9am.

She takes a taxi from her home near Farrer Park to work, but at least twice a week faces problems getting one. She gets through to the operator, but no cab is available, Ms Ramanathan, 48, said.

The Straits Times checked out the peak-hour situation yesterday at 9.10am from Punggol Central. We tried to book a cab from six operators and got through each time, but no cabs were available. We finally got a cab at 9.41am, when a CityCab taxi pulled up and a passenger got out.

THE REASON

Taxi operators say demand for cabs spikes dramatically during rush hour and on rainy days.

ComfortDelGro reports that one rainy Friday in September 2010, it secured 97,631 taxi bookings - the highest that year - and 50 per cent more than the daily average.

The problem is not that people cannot get through to the operator: Over the years, more call agents and phone lines have been added. And it is not that operators cannot match cabs to customers: Global positioning system technology is increasingly used to do this.

One reason for not getting a cab through call booking is that drivers are just not in the area.

Cabbies typically take passengers from housing estates to the city centre in the morning, then continue their search for fares in places nearby, like Fort Road, Tanjong Rhu and Tiong Bahru. Few cruise empty to further-away housing estates like Punggol.

Said Transcab general manager Jasmine Tan: 'Drivers won't waste diesel going from downtown to HDB estates. They go to the nearest areas.'

But cabby behaviour can also contribute to customers' inability to book a cab, say operators. They have to be willing to take the booking.

Some, however, are wary, due to customers' desperation tactics. Said National Taxi Association president Wee Boon Kim: 'We have heard of drivers having their call bookings cancelled upon reaching the destination, or passengers making multiple bookings, resulting in several taxis arriving at the same location.'

THE SOLUTION

The Government will tighten service standards for taxi call bookings during peak hours from Oct 1.

For instance, of the calls that get through a large taxi company's hotline, at least 92 per cent must be successfully matched with taxis, up from 90 per cent now.

Operators must also ensure shorter waiting times for calls to be answered and for taxis to arrive.

They must equip their fleets so that taxis near a caller can be identified and one of them assigned to him.

But, observers say, these measures do not directly solve the problem of drivers not going to where they are needed.

Transport economist Michael Li, of Nanyang Business School, suggests matching demand and taxi supply with 'real-time' booking fees.

In an interactive bidding system, customers could offer different booking fees on top of the morning peak surcharge to see if cabbies would pick them up. If a person needs a taxi more urgently, he can offer a higher fee. And once the cabby accepts the offer, both sides have to stick to the agreement, he said.





Advance bookings: How inconsiderate taxi passengers can be
TAXI passengers have said much about the shortcomings of cabbies who are tardy about or renege on call or advance bookings ('4 reasons you can't get a cab when you need one'; last Saturday).

Here is a cabby's point of view:

When I accept an advance booking, I do not accept other fares about an hour before the pick-up time.

I try to arrive 15 minutes early and if passengers are late, I will wait without starting the fare meter.

However, passengers are not so considerate.

Over the past year, I have had some 10 bookings called off. On Monday alone, three of my five bookings for the day were cancelled. Of the three, two were cancelled after I had arrived at the pick-up points.

In fact, one passenger told me to wait after I had arrived. But 20 minutes later, she told me her son had already gone to school by bus. This was at 5.45am.

The second cancellation was a 6.45am booking. I drove to a condominium in town and waited for at least two hours. I called many times, but the passenger did not answer his cellphone.

As a result, I lost out on earnings - at least two hours' worth - and time, as well as sleep.

Now, I think twice when it comes to accepting bookings.

My plea to passengers: Do not cancel bookings unless there is a valid reason - and, please, not over money considerations; you save but we lose.

It may also discourage cabbies from accepting bookings.

And if passengers must cancel booking, please do so reasonably ahead of time, unlike one of my cancellations, which was made an hour before pick-up.

Taxi companies should also introduce measures to protect cabbies.

Currently, taxi drivers are penalised if they cancel three or more bookings after accepting them. But what about protecting those who have had passengers cancel on them?

Peter Lim
ST Forum, 17 Mar 2012

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