End of the road for regular cabs?
When President Duterte warned taxi drivers last year that not giving exact change to passengers amounted to estafa, he touched on one among a litany of grievances Filipinos have had about taxis. From getting turned down after flagging it down to having to fend off getting ripped off, just the thought of taking a cab can be stressful.
Of course, this is not to generalize; we are also occasionally regaled with tales of honest taxi drivers: In January, for example, Reggie Cabutotan of Baguio City returned a bag containing around P1 million to a very grateful Australian passenger. In this vein, I must commend the taxi drivers of Davao City, some of whom continue to give change down to the last peso.
Even so, many Filipinos have had negative experiences with taxis, which is why when Grab and Uber entered the market a few years ago, they had instant appeal. Simply put, these transport network companies (TNCs) took away the hailing and the haggling—that is, the hassle of getting a taxi.
What’s more, TNC drivers routinely use smartphone apps to come up with the fastest route to your exact destination, and having a nice car with good air-conditioning is a great bonus. Others also find their drivers more personable and professional—and narratives of these interactions can be found on Facebook. Finally, the more recent carpooling services (i.e., UberPool) make for more budget- and environment-friendly options.
But taxi operators weren’t amused, and formally protested their loss of income. They alleged that TNCs don’t pay taxes (a charge that the two companies vigorously denied), and blamed them for exacerbating the traffic in Metro Manila.
What taxi operators don’t realize, however, is they are losing business because of the aspects of quality transport in which they have failed, or which they have failed to offer. The thought of paying more than what one is supposed to, for instance, is generally annoying, no matter how cheap the actual and asking prices are. Competition (i.e., who provides the better services), and not the government, decides who wins.
As mobile internet access becomes more widespread, so will the popularity of Uber and Grab. For regular taxis to survive, they have to professionalize their workforce. The innovation of TNCs, after all, is not rethinking the role of the passengers, but that of the drivers, too: They generally earn more and have more control over their time—but they are also given a set of standards to follow, for which they are subject to passengers’ evaluation. Meanwhile, while taxi drivers are on the receiving end of our complaints, they are under psychological and financial pressure due to long working hours (some go for 24-hour runs) and the need to earn enough to make the “boundary.”
Regular taxis can also compete in areas where TNCs have weaknesses. For one, the waiting time is often understated: Two minutes can easily become 20—an excruciating wait if you’re running late. Because of their (over)dependence on technology, their services can go crazy when the internet connection goes awry. And there are times when they are too expensive, as when they do “surge pricing” during peak hours. If only taxis can offer a no-frills service with metered rates and good customer service, surely they will win (back) more passengers.
Ultimately, however, transport services—whether by regular taxis or TNCs—are only as good as the traffic situation, and while it’s better to be stuck in traffic in a nice car, you’re still stuck—and the predicament of how you can move from one place to another more efficiently remains. As urban planner Benjamin dela Peña has repeatedly pointed out, we have to think of transport not in terms of cars but of people; the long-term solution is not just better services or more roads, but mass transit and streets for walking and biking—all of which can complement one another.
And so while I will keep the ride-sharing apps in my smartphone, I will also hold out the hope that someday, there will be a faster, cheaper, and no less convenient alternative: public transport.
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