Monday 8 July 2013

A taxi in hand is worth two on the road

Quantity, mileage not the problem; it's about being able to get a cab when you need one
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Sunday Times, 7 Jul 2013

I got my driving licence in 1998, but continued happily taking cabs and public transport for a few more years.

I finally gave up on cabs in 2003. I still recall the exact moment I swore to get my own car. It was raining and I stood outside my office building in Toa Payoh, struggling with my umbrella, my handbag and my heavy laptop bag, trying to flag a non-existent cab.

I bought a second-hand car shortly after.

Ten years on, many commuters are facing the same problem of getting cabs on rainy days and during peak hours. Taxi availability returned to the news last week.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) decided to give taxi companies another six months till December to meet service standards that require 70 per cent of cabs to ply the roads during peak hours (7am to 11am and 5pm to 11pm) and to ensure that 70 per cent of a cab company's fleet clock a minimum daily mileage of 250km. The proportions go up from next year.

The LTA's standards are a good first step towards tackling the persistent mismatch: commuters who say they can't find cabs when they need one, and drivers who spend hours cruising empty.

This is surprising given that there are 28,000 taxis run by seven companies in Singapore. Cab numbers rose 47 per cent from 2003. But taxi ridership has gone up only 16 per cent.

What this shows is that adding more cabs alone will not solve Singapore's taxi problem. Instead, each cab already licensed must be put to maximum, and more efficient, use.

The LTA's measures serve to increase only the quantity of cab hours on the road, by requiring cabs to chalk up a minimum mileage and ply during peak hours.

They do not increase the intensity of cab use during those plying hours.

The difference is like a company adding more workers to make a product, and making the workers work longer hours, rather than looking at how to raise the productivity of each worker.

National Taxi Association advisor Ang Hin Kee says the LTA's 250km rule has led to cabbies complaining that they cruise empty at night just to chalk up the miles.

Rather than use quantitative standards with minimum hours and mileage, the LTA can be a lot more proactive in looking at ways to raise the efficiency of cab usage while they are on the road. The objective should be to increase their chances of picking up more fares rather than cruising empty.

This can be done in two ways.
- First, increase the churn, or the number of trips a cab can make during each shift.
This can be done by helping taxis raise their throughput so that instead of, say, picking up two fares and travelling 30km in an hour, they can pick up three and travel 50km.

How might this be done?

Allow taxis to use bus lanes during peak hours.

This will allow taxis to travel faster so they can pick up and drop off more fares during the crucial morning and evening peak hours to meet the increased demand.

The LTA's position has been that bus lanes are meant for buses. Allowing taxis may also slow down buses, which carry dozens of passengers, whereas taxis carry only one to four.

But other cities show bus lanes can be shared.

In London, taxis, motorcyclists and cyclists share bus lanes, mostly amiably.

Vancouver is the most recent, and successful example. It experimented with letting taxis use bus lanes in March last year. Cabs can travel but not stop in them. It proved so successful that the city council voted to make it permanent this May.

Studies suggest time saved for routes downtown was 12 per cent in the morning and 17 per cent in the afternoon.

There were teething problems at first, with many cabs stopping and cutting off buses. But a strict penalty system - suspension of driving from four hours to five days, with the suspensions immediately broadcast to all taxi drivers via their in-vehicle messaging systems - curbed such anti-social behaviour soon enough in Vancouver.
- The second way to raise cab efficiency is to make sure every empty cab on the road is matched to a commuter nearby quickly.
How? Harness technology.

In fact, the technology already exists. Cab companies like ComfortDelgro and SMRT have their own apps. But it's cumbersome having to use a different app for each cab company, when a commuter really just wants a cab, any cab.

As the regulator, LTA has to play a role to coordinate across different vested interests to spur an industry-wide solution. Instead of fragmented apps, there should just be One App To Rule Them All.

Conceptually, it's not hard to do. Taxi companies already track cabs. Last year, the Institute of Infocomm Research (IIR) showcased its Taxi Trajectory software at its TechFest. This makes use of cab companies' data on where cabs are plying. Matched with cellphone data, the software can be used to dispatch cabs to places with past and current demand for cabs.

Cabbies fear no-shows with booking systems: they may spend 10 minutes driving to a place to pick up a fare who jumped into another cab that happened to come along. A centralised system capable of accepting feedback and rating can create incentives for both passengers and drivers to behave.

Taxi companies have little reason to encourage such a system that will let passengers bypass their proprietary call booking system. They will lose revenue as a result.

This is where LTA has to step in, to work with tech partners and commercial providers to spur the development of one common system to match cabs to commuters. This is good for passengers and cabbies, and reduces congestion in the long term by reducing the demand for ever more cabs - and even cars.

If people are confident of getting a cab when they need one, and know they can get to their destination in good time since cabs can bypass peak hour jams on bus and taxi lanes, some car owners will switch to taxis and public transport.

Perhaps, in 2023, when I'm struggling with umbrella, handbag and walking frame, I'll be able to summon the cab nearest to me with nothing more than a wink at my Google Glass.

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