Council goes extra mile for e-hailing

Editorial | Mary Ma 30 Nov 2017

The Consumer Council's report on e-hailing transport services is timely. Differing from the government's choice of the taxi industry over consumers, the council has opted to side with the latter.

The report sums up the views shared by many in the public who find the Transport Bureau's plan to introduce 600 so-called "premium" taxis a half-hearted stop-gap response to what they want.

As the title of the council's magazine makes clear, it's all about choice.

Uber, a major e-hailing service provider steered by general manager Kenneth She Chun-chi, landed in Hong Kong three years ago, and has proven hugely popular since. Rather than encouraging the development of a new transport service, authorities cracked down on it.

Will the release of the report by the consumer rights watchdog cause Secretary for Housing and Transport Frank Chan Fan to change his mind after inheriting the hot-potato issue from his predecessor, Anthony Cheung Bing-leung? Chan probably won't - not before the "premium" taxis hit the streets.

The report is comprehensive, and its authors deserve kudos for its quality. However, it would have been more reassuring if the report had come from Chan's policy bureau.

Council chairman Wong Yuk-shan was bang on in pointing out we need to improve the personalized transport service market. In the face of an new economic trend, authorities should create a framework early to allow the regulatory regime to catch up - rather than suppressing its emergence. What's crucial is maintaining a level playing field for all.

Policymakers should seriously consider the council's suggestions, including its proposal for an initial quota of 1,500 vehicles, starting with existing hire car permits issued by the transport commissioner; separate licensing for e-hailing service providers, vehicles and drivers; and licenses to be valid for a period of seven years, etc. According to the council, e-hailing service operators must disclose to consumers fares, surcharges and routes before accepting bookings, with drivers subject to background checks.

While its proposal for up to 11 e-hailing platforms could be too ambitious, the recommendations are technically feasible and can be readily implemented, given that the technology is already available and widely used around the world.

What's missing is the political will. Opposition from the taxi industry is a foregone conclusion, but this shouldn't prevent authorities from modernizing the public transportation model, in accordance with rapid evolution in the technology world.

We needn't be pioneers like Dubai, where a flying taxi service is being tested, but neither should we fall behind our metropolitan peers. There are various kinds of regulatory regimes in cities like Beijing, New York, London, Singapore, Seoul, and Toronto, where e-hailing services are common.

London decided not to renew Uber's license for security reasons, and the operator is appealing the move to the courts.

E-hailing is not strange to Hongkongers, for the service has proven heavily utilized and popular for three years.

Does the government really think it can protect the SAR's shabby taxi industry forever?

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