Monday, January 14, 2008

Why taxis are not “Public Transport”

I met with a taxi driver relative of mine over the New Year. He shared that his income had dipped significantly (abt 25%) in the weeks following the fare increase; he added that while each fare now paid more, he spent much more time cruising around for passengers. He agreed (only grudgingly) that this was probably a knee-jerk reaction and that when taxi commuters got used to the overall increase, his income would likely increase.

It would appear therefore that the objectives of the fare hike, i.e. to increase the income of taxi drivers, and the supply of taxis in the city area and during peak hours, would probably be met.

My taxi driver relative continued to argue nonetheless that the new fares were too high, and that the poor – who would therefore not have cars – would find taxis unaffordable. Taxis, he felt, were public transport and should therefore be affordable to all.

I had another point of view. While public transport should be affordable for all, I think we need to examine whether – in the Singapore context – taxis should really be considered as “public transport.”

A taxi takes a person(s) from point A to B comfortably in an air-conditioned vehicle. Waiting time can usually be limited to 10-15 minutes if one makes a booking. On the road, the taxi occupies as much space as any other car. The only difference is that it would not require a parking lot at its destination, but would instead go off to serve another passenger.

With telephone bookings and mobile phones (so ubiquitous these days), the convenience of having a car – vis-à-vis using taxis – has been eroded. There are also the in-between options e.g. car-sharing.

Therefore, the taxi commuter enjoys the same utility as a car owner – he even gets the services of a driver in addition to using the car. The exception might be that a car owner might enjoy some pride in car ownership.

My point is that taxis – in the Singapore context at least – are not public transport. Taxis users take up the same resources (vehicle, petrol, road space) as car users and then some (manpower). The taxi user should be compared to the car user, not the bus or MRT commuter. Based on average/similar commuting habits, therefore, the cost of using taxis should rightfully exceed that of owning a car.

One could argue that certain segments of the population really need taxi services e.g. the disabled. In such cases, a subsidy aimed at these users would be more appropriate, instead of simply suppressing all taxi fares on the basis that it is “public transport.”