"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
It isn’t recent, this disquiet over our taxi service. Older Hong Kong residents tend to wax lyrically about the past efficiency and availability of taxis. Time and age create a rosy picture. In reality, the service was never brilliant: cheap and cheerful at best, and adequate is the sum up.
In the early 1990s, while working in Traffic Kowloon West, I mounted weekly operations against taxi malpractice. Modified meters and illegal radios earned our attention. The sophistication of the fiddling was something to behold, with drivers fitting covert switches to trip their meters to higher earnings. We’d deploy with motor vehicle examiners at roadblocks picking up the offenders. With the introduction of digital meters, the ability to tamper with fare readings disappeared. That’s when unscrupulous drivers went into overdrive with direct cheating. Tourists proved the most vulnerable.
In attempting to deal with these changes, I’d pretend to be an arriving passenger. Hanging around the arrival halls at Kai Tak, wayward drivers would approach me. Asking to be taken to the Kowloon Hotel — we had an ambush waiting — they'd drive me via Lung Cheung Road and other long routes. At the hotel, with identities revealed, the crest-fallen driver would usually surrender with a whimper.
One didn’t. He accelerated away with me hanging off the back passenger door. I managed to throw myself inside as police motorbikes gave chase. Tunnel traffic outside Tsim Sha Tsui East brought the escapee to a halt. Game over with another charge on the sheet. In those days we maintained a fair degree of pressure on the taxi trade that held them in check. I’m not sure the same happens now.
I have to say that taxi drivers are a mixed bag. It would be dishonest to portray them all as reckless or deceitful, far from it. I’ve had dropped mobile phones returned, and drivers who went out of the way to help. When my elderly Aunt went missing on a visit to Hong Kong, a taxi driver spotted her wandering near Tai Hang Road. He persuaded her to get in the taxi, then drove to the Happy Valley Police Station.
Likewise, I’ve had surreal conversations with drivers — usually late a night — ruminating about life. “Einstein's theory of relativity explains the big movements of planet and stars but doesn’t work at a micro level.” That opening line from a driver caught me off guard. He followed this with “I don’t understand quantum mechanics.” Well, who does?
It’s delightful when you get those quirky drivers. Unfortunately, and increasingly, the taxi experience is pretty shoddy. Drivers picking their hires, negotiating fairs and driving like nutters is common. Stop/go is the default driving style, with no finesse. That they call themselves ‘professional drivers’ is laughable. Grubby taxi interiors and smells of indeterminate origin don’t help. Watching a driver empty the contents of his nose on the dash is never a welcome start to an evening out.
Sadly, aggressive behaviour is not uncommon these days. With 50% of the taxi drivers over the age of 60, is that the cause or the general mood in Hong Kong? Hard to say. Plus, driving around in Hong Kong traffic for hours isn’t conducive to a calm demeanour. Indeed the number of complaints from the public against the taxi trade is on the rise. In 2018, a record 11,000 complaints continued a 15-year upward trend. Although refusing a hire is against the law, cabbies routinely turn down trips across the harbour.
Hong Kong had 210,524 licensed cabbies and 18,163 taxis. It’s estimated that at any one time, ten per cent of the taxis is laid-up on a long-term basis. Despite having over 200,000 licensed drivers, the vast majority are inactive or part-time. Yet, the taxi license owners don’t worry. The license fee alone provides a decent return on investment because the government has not issued any licenses since 1994. Thus the value keeps increasing. Licenses for urban taxis are now worth over HK$6.5 million.
The owners respond to any fare hike by increasing the fees for taxi drivers to hire a cab. Thus, neither the drivers or public gain. The only beneficiary is the license holder.
The average daily use is near to one million trips with about 30 complaints a day. On first look, that’s a small percentage of complaints at 0.003%. But, you can bet that the actual level of dissatisfaction is much higher because busy people aren’t prepared to make a complaint. Indeed, the comments section of local newspapers testifies to public disaffection.
Contrast the low quality service taxis provide against that of Uber, and you start to understand the public frustrations. I’ve never had a poor experience with Uber. All the drivers were polite, knew the routes and their cars spotless. It’s my observation that most are younger than the taxi drivers. I guarantee if you did a poll of the Hong Kong public the results would favour Uber over the taxi trade.
And yet, the government is unwilling to endorse Uber. This bizarre attitude goes against stated policies on adopting new technology and the open market. Allowing Uber to operate in competition with the taxi trade would have several immediate benefits. It increases choice, which in turn will drive an improvement in the taxi trade if it’s to keep customers. strange that our government lauds it free trade credentials except in this arena. Why?
There is evidence that prominent political players and vested interests hold a fair number of taxi licenses. Operating to protect their investment, they’ve held off reforms and competition. For example, despite adoption elsewhere making electronic payments is still not possible.
Taxi drivers are not above strong-arming the government. They smash up their own cars in protests and have held reform at bay by belligerent action. The 1984 ‘Taxi Riot’ was a lesson in their power.
Our taxi trade would do well to study operations on the Mainland or in Japan. Both places offer ease of payment and clean cabs. I often wonder what arrivals think as they board the stinking taxis at our airport. Their introduction to Hong Kong is hardly the sort of image we should be projecting unless the aim is to have a dysfunctional experience.
An air of inertia hangs over our Transport Department officials. What is the long term vision for the taxi trade and how will government integrate innovation? These are questions that need answers.
There is hope on the horizon. Autonomous driving could see the end of the taxi trade in its current form as drivers won't be needed. With an ageing population, and fewer people willing to serve as taxi drivers, self-drive cars may provide a viable alternative. Current estimates suggest autonomous drive will arrive as a realistic option within ten years. I say bring it on. Until then, we will continue to suffer the nose-picking, the stop/go driving style and substandard service. All made palatable by the odd philosophising driver.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.