It has long been illegal for taxi operators to allocate rides through bidding – a covert system where commuters who are willing to pay more get assigned a cab. Yet this ad hoc auction, where some touts would guarantee a cab on a rainy Friday evening for a few dollars more, is what surge pricing really amounts to.
But in the case of surge pricing, the “few dollars more” can amount to three or four times the normal fare. It is not uncommon to hear of a 10km ride costing $40-$50.
And during a major rail breakdown – such as the one which crippled the North-South, East-West lines in July 2015 – irate Uber customers complained of fares exceeding $100.
Having to fork out five times the normal taxi fare – or in the case of displaced train commuters, 80 times their usual MRT fare – is not something anyone relishes.
It is therefore quite understandable that the Land Transport Authority (LTA) had always frowned upon the practice of taxi-booking “touts” asking for more money to secure a ride during peak periods.
Nonetheless, the practice continued, even if not openly.
In September 2012, The Straits Times gave it wide coverage in a story. “No taxis? Some offer extra cash to get a ride” told of at least nine “independent service operators” offering this permutation of dynamic pricing.
In the story, Mr Lim Biow Chuan, a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport, said the illegal service was unfair to commuters as fares would not be transparent.
But deputy chairman of the GPC for Transport Seng Han Thong was not entirely against it, saying: “It’s a happy buyer, happy seller situation.”
The LTA however, was irrevocably against it, describing the practice as “unauthorised and illegal”.
This attitude changed dramatically barely a year later, in 2013, when Uber and Grab entered the fray. Back then, the LTA said that Uber and Grab were not transport providers, but technology companies.