For the past six months, insurance agent Mervyn Tan, 51, has stopped taking taxis to get around town.
Instead, Mr Tan relies on ride-booking apps such as Uber and Grab, which can be 30 per cent cheaper on average than a cab during the off-peak hours, he says.
If he shares the private-hire car with another stranger going his way, the fees go even lower, about 40 per cent less than that of a taxi.
Mr Tan is one of a growing number of commuters who are swopping conventional taxis from the likes of household names such as Comfort and CityCab, for vehicle-booking services that have sprung up over the past two years.
What Mr Tan also likes about these apps is that fares are quoted upfront and are fixed, so if he gets caught in a traffic jam, the charges will not go up, unlike in a taxi with a running meter. And you don’t have to pay a midnight surcharge, either.
Ride-hailing apps also dangle discounts, such as $5 off car-pooled rides, that further sweeten the deal.
Operating in a less regulated environment, it is no wonder, then, that Uber and Grab have been able to rapidly expand their ranks of drivers and cars. It is estimated that their combined fleet is in the region of 25,000, edging close to the island’s 27,500 taxis.
To commuters, this must seem good news. After all, a ride is a ride – be it taxi company or private-hire service; what matters is price and convenience. That is how the marketplace operates.
However, there are other aspects to consider.
Even as commuters enjoy rides with Uber and Grab, do they really want to see Singapore’s traditional cab companies hit at their expense?
There are issues of nostalgia and national identity tied up with those quaint names of Comfort and the like – not to mention the livelihoods of tens of thousands of cabbies. Many are less educated and might not be able to find other jobs, let alone work for app outfits like Uber.
What is being done to balance the scales? Can more be done – especially by the transport stalwarts and the drivers themselves?
GRABBING AN EDGE
Indeed, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in August last year that the playing field is not quite level for the incumbents. He noted then that the taxi sector was still subject to some extra rules – for example, statutory requirements made operating taxis more expensive.
A taxi operator’s ability to expand its fleet hinges on whether it can meet availability standards spelt out by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) – which include ensuring that the bulk of its fleet are on the road during peak hours, failing which it can be fined.
In comparison, Uber and Grab have free rein to grow their fleets – their vehicles only have to be commercially registered and insured.
Furthermore, to be a cabby, one must be a Singaporean and at least 30 years old, while for Uber and Grab drivers, the minimum age is 21 and both Singaporeans and permanent residents are accepted.
Because of stiff competition and the unbridled expansion of private-hire car services, cabbies’ business has been hit and many are lamenting that they are suffering, with fewer passengers and lower earnings.
Take Raymond Ong, 57, who said: “Incomes have fallen by between 20 percent and 30 percent, mainly due to competition. There are also other factors, such as a slowing economy and more public transport options.”
He declared: “Competition is good, but it should be fair.”
BECOMING A TWO-WAY STREET
Already, some measures have been introduced to level the playing field. Notably, the requirement for taxi drivers to clock a minimum daily mileage of 250km has been scrapped, effective this month.
And in May last year, the LTA reduced the duration of the taxi driver’s vocational licence course from 60 hours to 25 hours. Cabbies who are active, with no demerit points, will also be exempted from refresher courses.
The private-hire industry also has to smarten up its act.
New rules will kick in by the first half of the year, requiring such drivers to be vocationally licensed, after undergoing a 10-hour course – somewhat similar to taxi drivers.
As well, vehicles used for Uber and Grab must be marked with decals and drivers will have to display their licences prominently in their cars, among other requirements.
A new regulation was also proposed in Parliament on Tuesday to allow the authorities to suspend Grab and Uber for up to a month if their drivers do not have the proper licences and insurance.
But tweaking regulations is just one side of the coin.
There needs to be other changes in the industry, from cab operators and taxi drivers themselves, so the incumbents can effectively compete with the disruptors.