12th April 2024 – (Hong Kong) As the taxi trade petitions for a fare hike, a resounding chorus of voices has arisen, urging the authorities to exercise prudence and demanding that any increase be contingent upon a fundamental overhaul of service quality.

The figures are sobering: an average proposed fare increase ranging from 11.68% for Lantau taxis to a staggering 16.95% for their urban counterparts. Yet, as the industry clamours for financial relief, a disquieting reality has come to light – a reality that threatens to undermine the very foundations upon which the taxi trade has built its reputation.

For too long, the discourse surrounding Hong Kong’s taxis has been mired in a morass of complacency, with service quality taking a backseat to the relentless pursuit of profitability. It is a narrative that has not gone unnoticed by the city’s legislators, whose voices have resonated with a sense of urgency and a clarion call for reform.

At the forefront of this chorus is Chan Hok-fung, a Legislative Councillor whose words cut through the cacophony with a piercing clarity. “They keep raising fares whenever they encounter difficulties, but passenger numbers keep dwindling,” he laments, a sentiment that echoes the frustrations of a public increasingly disillusioned with the state of the taxi industry.

Chan’s critique strikes at the heart of the issue, questioning the very premise upon which the fare increase is predicated. “Is there any method to address the taxi problem?” he demands, casting a critical eye upon the industry’s alleged penchant for overcharging and the apparent lack of safeguards to curb such practices.

His call for the implementation of electronic fare systems, a measure that could potentially curb the scourge of fare manipulation, is a rallying cry that reverberates throughout the corridors of power – a demand for transparency and accountability that can no longer be ignored.

Yet, Chan is not alone in his critique. Wilson Yang, a Legislative Councillor representing the “A4 Alliance,” has raised pointed questions about the efficacy of fare increases in addressing the industry’s woes. “How many people have actually joined the trade after each fare hike?” he queries, casting doubt upon the oft-touted claim that higher fares will attract new blood to the profession.

Yang’s concerns extend beyond mere recruitment, delving into the very heart of the service quality conundrum. “Two years ago, fares were raised, and we were told service quality would improve, but we still see ‘black taxis’ (a term used to describe errant cabbies),” he laments, a damning indictment of the industry’s apparent inability to translate financial incentives into tangible improvements in passenger experience.

Amidst this chorus of discontent, a glimmer of optimism emerges in the form of Frankie Yick, a Legislative Councillor from the Liberal Party. Yick’s pragmatic approach acknowledges the necessity of fare increases as a means of attracting new talent and fostering a culture of service excellence. “Raising incomes is necessary to attract newcomers and improve quality in an orderly manner,” he asserts, a sentiment that resonates with those who recognise the inextricable link between financial viability and service delivery.

Yet, even as these divergent viewpoints battle for supremacy, a common thread emerges – a shared recognition that the status quo is no longer tenable and that the path to progress lies not in mere fare adjustments, but in a profound reimagining of the industry’s ethos and operational paradigms.

The Commissioner for Transport, Angela Lee, has sought to assuage these concerns, pledging the government’s commitment to reducing the industry’s operational costs and addressing the thorny issue of soaring insurance premiums – a persistent thorn in the side of the taxi trade. Lee’s acknowledgement of the public’s ability to bear fare increases is a tacit recognition of the delicate balance that must be struck between financial sustainability and public acceptability.

Amidst this maelstrom of debate, the voices of the public have emerged as a clarion call for change. A recent survey commissioned by the Hong Kong Taxi Council has laid bare the stark realities of passenger dissatisfaction, with a mere 35% of respondents agreeing that “drivers treat passengers politely” – a damning indictment of the industry’s service culture.

The survey’s findings paint a grim picture, with just 55% of passengers expressing satisfaction with the taxi trade, and a disconcerting 8% rating the service as “unsatisfactory” or “extremely unsatisfactory.” These figures stand in stark contrast to the halcyon days of 2019, when a pre-pandemic survey found nearly 70% of passengers deeming the service satisfactory.

The Taxi Council has sought to attribute this decline to the industry’s ageing workforce and fleet, a narrative that has been met with scepticism by Ryan Wong Cheuk-pong, the council’s chairman. Wong has taken the bold step of calling for a ban on online car-hailing services, such as Uber, in a bid to stem the tide of young drivers abandoning the traditional taxi trade for more flexible and lucrative alternatives.

Yet, even as Wong’s proposal stokes controversy, it underscores a fundamental truth: that the taxi industry’s woes extend far beyond mere financial considerations, and that a comprehensive and holistic approach to reform is required – one that addresses the root causes of passenger dissatisfaction and restores the public’s faith in a mode of transport that has long been woven into the fabric of Hong Kong’s identity.

The authorities must exercise their gatekeeping role with unwavering resolve, ensuring that any financial concessions granted to the industry are inextricably linked to tangible, measurable improvements in passenger experience.

This is not a call for mere window dressing or superficial changes, but rather a vivid call for a fundamental reappraisal of the industry’s values and operational paradigms. From the implementation of electronic fare systems and in-vehicle monitoring to the establishment of robust training programs and stringent service standards, the road to reform must be paved with concrete, actionable measures that leave no room for complacency or mediocrity.

For too long, the taxi trade has coasted on the fumes of its own inertia, content to perpetuate a cycle of fare increases and broken promises. Now, as the city grapples with the realities of a post-pandemic world, the imperative for change has never been more urgent.