Government exploring feasibility of premium taxi service to solve Uber problem

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp

Secretary for Transport and Housing, Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, thinks making taxis more luxurious will solve the Uber problem. IT lawmaker Charles Mok believes they’re missing the point.

In reply to IT lawmaker Charles Mok’s questioning, Secretary for Transport and Housing, Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung stated that the Government is reviewing current taxi services, and will also explore the feasibility of introducing premium taxi service, with details hopefully decided on before the end of the year. 

In August, the Police arrested a few employees from Uber, an application for internet car calling services, and a few private car drivers who were suspected of carrying passengers for reward without a permit. Government representatives later commented on the service’s lack of hire car permits or valid insurance policy to protect third party risks.

Charles Mok was not happy with the Secretary’s answers, and is concerned the Government are too familiar with the status quo to promote innovation and technology.

Priority to review taxi services

Wednesday (October 14), saw the first council meeting of the resumed Legislative Council session after the summer break. IT lawmaker Charles Mok posed the first question to the administration on the current hire car permit and asked whether they will consider relaxing the criteria so that companies and car owners operating internet hire car services may operate lawfully with a permit.

Cheung replied stating the Government is open-minded to the application of technologies, including the use of applications for calling hire cars, but reiterated the need to be lawful and have regard to the interest and safety of passengers. He also revealed that efforts to review the current structures are being made, although priority will be given to taxi services.

“To address the concerns in the community, we will accord priority to review taxi service. Apart from improving the service quality of ordinary taxis, we will explore the feasibility of introducing premium taxi service. Areas of study include service standard, fare structure, operating and management models, taxi hailing mobile apps as well as other ancillary arrangements,” said the Secretary. “In tandem, the Government will also review the assessment criteria for Permits in keeping with the times and responding to the demands of the society.”

Still illegal

The Secretary noted the controversies surrounding “hire car ‘sharing’ services”.

“Regulatory authorities worldwide are still studying this complex matter and have yet to come up with a unified solution,” said Cheung. “We will closely monitor the development of this matter worldwide for our reference.” He mentioned examples where operations of passenger service for reward without licence remain illegal, such as Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany and France.

To this Mok replied, “Hong Kong is behind the curve in the application of innovations, and it is a fact citizens’ needs in transportation are not satisfied. You listed countries where such services are illegal, but Shanghai released related licenses just last week; Singapore changed two laws in half a year to legalise these services. The government claims to promote innovation and technology, so who do you want to learn from? Those slow to adapt? Or those who are doing a good job?”

Ball dropped

In an interview with HT after the meeting, Charles Mok criticised the Secretary, saying his answers were half-hearted (敷衍), “He was willing to offer the numbers [of hire car permit applications] but he did not give any clear explanation why [only less than half of hire car permits were distributed].”

The numbers of Permits by types issued by the Transport Department (TD)
The numbers of Permits by types issued by the Transport Department (TD). (Provided by the Government)

During the meeting, Mok also asked the Secretary if the administration knew how many permits were owned by single companies, and whether a recent merger has left 90% of hire car permits with one company, as suggested by some industry members. He believes the small number of permits reflect a barrier for individuals to apply for hire car permits, and the alleged monopoly only shows how the licensing process favours the large conglomerates. Cheung said he did not have the data.

Figures on the approval of Private Service (Limousine) Permits from the Transport Department.
Figures on the approval of Private Service (Limousine) Permits from the Transport Department. (Provided by the Government)

“He totally dropped the ball (失職),” says Mok.  “They fail to give the public any confidence that CY Leung’s administration is capable of solving problems in a timely manner.”

CY Leung was in Israel earlier today to visit tech firms, and published a blog on his experience with automatic driver assistance systems, stating that Hong Kong can study similar technologies.

Mok is highly doubtful whether the Chief Executive will come back and look at the actual application issues, “His administration can’t even solve issues with technologies [such as internet hire car services] that are closer to home.”

Keeping the status quo

With regards to the administration’s stance to diffuse the controversies by focusing on improving taxi services, Mok expressed his worries that the administration might be favouring the taxi industry. “The Government’s role is to create the best environment for citizens, but instead they seem more interested in maintaining the status quo and protecting vested interests,” says Mok.

The IT lawmaker also believe the Government is trying to play down the issue by bundling it with a broader transportation policy issue. “The case of Uber involves legal issues and innovation and technology policy. We should be holding a consultation exclusively on adopting the technology,” says Mok. “I’m worried the issue might end up as a footnote under the whole review, while at the same time they’re promoting an outdated policy [premium taxi services] that was last brought up in 2007.”

Cheung said the administration hopes to complete the review on current taxi services and feasibility of introducing premium taxi services, and decide on the details before the end of the year.

A full transcript of Charles Mok’s question and Professor Cheung Bing-leung’s answers can be found here.