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September, 27, 2016

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Taxi alternatives needed in Hong Kong

HONG KONG -- Few people have anything good to say about Hong Kong's taxi services. This is unfortunate for a city that boasts one of the world's most efficient public transport systems.

Local taxi services are getting worse, judging by the mounting complaints from commuters about fare refusals and illicit overcharging. Despite a police crackdown, incidents of cabbies fleecing commuters are reported to be on the rise, especially at pickup points in nightlife districts.

One would think there's a simple and straightforward solution to the problem in this free market economy. But, creating stiffer competition in the taxi business is a contentious proposition that was tried but failed a number of times in the past.

At the core of the issue is the high cost of taxi licenses. Unique to Hong Kong, a taxi license is a valuable commodity that's actively traded in the market with a network of brokers and finance companies. The current price of a taxi license is said to be about HK$7 million, which would be enough to buy a typical apartment in Hong Kong.

Unsurprisingly, taxi owners have reacted with great determination and passion against Uber and other similar dial-a-cab services. Uber's arrival in Hong Kong drew a storm of protests from taxi owners who vowed to fight back by forming their own call service and improving on it.

But, all that was put on the backburner when Uber was deemed to have contravened local laws that also made it impossible for Uber drivers to insure the safety of passengers. This means business as usual for taxi operators, but not for long.

The government has said it will introduce a program to create a fleet of "premium" taxis for commuters who are willing to pay more for such perks as clean cabins and polite drivers. Sure enough, even this compromising proposal has touched a raw nerve with many taxi operators, complaining of, you guessed it, unfair treatment.

Hong Kong taxi operators have had their say for too long. It's time for commuters to be given a choice.

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