Hong Kong has one of the most comprehensive taxi services in the world. So much, the Toyota Crown Comfort cab has become iconic for Hong Kong. But as the story goes, life has become difficult for taxi drivers. There are 18,140 taxi licences, each worth about HK$6.7m, owned mostly by speculators who charge drivers about HK$400/shift. Drivers are having difficulty making ends meet. In December 2016, taxi drivers rallied for 18% rise in fares. As a result, on 9 April 2017, taxi fares will rise by about HK$2, or 10%.
My personal experiences with taxi drivers
Before I talk politics, let’s talk about service. Try taking a cab on Friday night in Central. Covering their “for hire” signs, they ask for an “agreed fee”. Let’s not even talk about legality. I just want to go home after doing OT. Then, they refuse hires. They say they are won’t cross harbour or go to NT. They might even say not knowing the way there. Or they will change shift soon. Worse, they say they don’t have change for your bills. Reality is that we just want to go home and don’t want to file a police complaint. We walk away.
Further taxi fare hikes will make no difference
Having said the above, taxi drivers have time and time again tried to rally public sympathy for their cause. The problem is this – raising taxi fare does not solve their problem. It will matters if they own their taxi licences. But almost all don’t. Taxi owners can simply raise their rental for taxi drivers to set off any price hike for taxi fares to, say, HK$440/shift. I don’t see how increased fares will alleviate the financial burdens of the actual drivers.
The real reason for price hikes being interest rates
The transport functional constituency has only 208 voters for their seat in the Legislature and 40 are held by taxi owners. The drivers have no vote. Other voters of the seat include minibus owners, who with taxi owners collectively have 18 votes on the election committee for chief executive. Jake Van Der Kamp of SCMP has written that the taxi owners are actually concerned with rising interest rates affecting the licence speculation market. Price hikes may just help the licences maintain their value.
It seems abundantly clear that any price hike would not make any meaningful difference in the lives of ordinary taxi drivers. As their lives become invariably more difficult due to increased costs of living, their frustrations would only lead to a further decline in quality of service. The real problem lies in the nature of taxi licence ownership which is dominated by a very few in the Legislature and the election committee who are calling the shots. Meanwhile, we are stuck with our disgruntled taxi drivers and a 10% price hike.