Sunday, September 30, 2012

No taxis? Some offer extra cash to get a ride

It is raining and there are no taxis anywhere. The taxi hotlines are busy. A desperate SMS to other booking services returns the message: "Sorry, there is no taxi available now."

Most commuters caught in this situation will either wait, or opt for the bus or MRT.

But for at least the past year, a number of people have been using an illegal service that lets commuters offer extra money to cabbies for a ride.

Taxi drivers and passengers familiar with the service - which is not authorised by taxi companies and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) - said this improves the odds of getting a taxi when demand is high, such as during peak hours and public holidays.

It is also a way to earn a bit of extra income, the cabbies said.

This is how it works: Apart from the taxi companies' official hotlines, there are at least nine other independent service operators that help passengers book taxis using an exclusive radio network subscribed to by cabbies, sources told The Straits Times.

Commuters call these numbers - some are listed online, others are passed around only by word of mouth - and ask for a taxi. This service itself is not illegal, but it becomes illegal when the operators agree to connect customers who offer a premium to the metered fare.

In such cases, the customer's offer is paged to the network of drivers, who decide if a deal can be made. Offers start from $5 and can go up to $20 depending on availability.

The total fare paid at the end of the ride is the metered fare plus the premium agreed on.

Cabbies said that there are at least 1,000 drivers here who subscribe to these radio operator networks.

They include workers from all seven taxi companies here with authorised booking hotlines. Drivers pay a monthly fee of $100 to join these networks, generally organised by neighbourhoods.

Taxi drivers who are part of these networks declined to go on the record, fearing censure by their companies. The Straits Times contacted three radio operators this week to test the system. Only one - Lake View Radio Taxi Service - took the illegal booking.

The service operator could not be reached for comment yesterday, but on the booked ride, the cabby said customers can offer up to $20 above the metered fare to avoid a long wait.

"It's very popular especially when it's raining and they can't get through the normal booking numbers," he added.

When asked about this, taxi companies and the LTA said the practice was unauthorised and illegal. LTA said it would take action against drivers caught accepting fares above the metered rate.

Penalties include fines and demerit points that can lead to their licences being revoked.

Asked how this practice differed from limousine groups that charge flat fees, LTA said such bookings are made through the companies' call centres and authorised limousine counters.

Mr Lim Biow Chuan, a member of the Governmental Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Transport, said the illegal service was unfair to commuters as fares would not be transparent.

But GPC vice-chair Seng Han Thong said: "This is the reality on the ground where some passengers prefer a personalised service... It's a happy buyer, happy seller situation."

National Taxi Association president Wee Boon Kim said such networks were a response to market demand.

Professor Lee Der Horng, transport researcher at the National University of Singapore, said he was "puzzled" that the authorities considered such transactions illegal. "After all, it's agreed upon between the driver and the passenger. And it is the passenger who is initiating this transaction."

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