It’s hard not to have a sneaking sympathy for Transport and Housing Secretary Anthony Cheung. When he was appointed four years ago it was on the basis of his expertise in housing matters. The intention at the time was to reshuffle duties in the secretariat so that he would be free to focus on that policy area. For various reasons the reshuffle did not go through so Cheung has had to cope with both subjects.
There has been quite a lot of progress on the housing front: public rental housing output has been stepped up, the Home Ownership Scheme so shamefully suspended over a decade ago to prop up prices and protect developers’ profits has been restored, private sector residential unit production is on the increase and the revived land sales programme continues to push sites onto the market even with prices softening. It is only the long lead time for development that has delayed public recognition of the progress made.
Meanwhile Cheung has had to answer for crisis after crisis on the transport side. The Marine Department’s failings vividly exposed by the Lamma Island collision; delays to all the local MTR extension projects; the extraordinary delays and cost overruns of the high speed cross border rail project; the issue of fare adjustment; controversy over the Airport Authority’s proposal for a third runway and the financing of it – week after week has seen our minister on his feet taking flak in public.
But to show he is not fazed by this, minister Cheung is now proposing to take on the taxi trade, an example of a vested interest par excellence. As fellow columnist Jake van der Kamp has pointed out before in this newspaper, the 9,000 licence holders of the 18,000 ordinary taxi licences are sitting on wealth in excess of $120 billion ($7 million asking price per licence at its peak, now reported to be a shade under $6 million). The value of their asset is protected by the government policy since 1994 of not issuing new licences, basically on traffic congestion grounds (except for a small number of new licences for taxis on Lantau Island). In a town where money means power, that represents a lot of clout. While some licence holders also drive their own taxis, many do not bother and just rent out their vehicles on a daily basis to individual taxi drivers.
This latter group has demonstrated a willingness to protect what it perceives to be its own interest by taking direct action, most famously in 1984 when the drivers responded to a government proposal to increase first registration tax by blocking roads. The government of the time quickly backed down. In effect of course, the drivers are actually defending the licence holders’ interests rather than their own, but that is a distinction many of them either cannot see or choose not to make.
Be that as it may, the tribes are threatening to go on the warpath again. The cause of their ire this time is a bold proposal to introduce premium taxis. A paper to the Legco Panel on Transport late last month reported on the many complaints against existing taxi service in Hong Kong: worn out shabby vehicles, drivers covering their meter, refusing to go to certain destinations especially in peak hours, overcharging etc. It suggested one way to address the problem was to provide an additional superior type of service for a higher charge. A few companies would be granted a franchise to operate premium taxis the performance of which would be closely monitored to prevent some of the existing common abuses.
The vehicles would be modern, clean and well equipped with such things as free wifi and mobile phone and charging devices. The drivers would be polite and smartly dressed with capability in both English and Putonghua. They would drive safely by the most direct route. No rides can be rejected, no meters covered.
Does this all sound too good to be true? Well not really, it sounds like the level of service we ought to be getting already. But anyway the existing trade sees the proposal as a threat and the war drums are beating.
The government is thinking in terms of several new franchises with a total of up to 600 premium taxis. Interestingly, the discussion paper quotes as justification for the new scheme two factors: that an (unnamed) company came here a while back and introduced such a scheme which proved very popular with consumers although it was technically unlawful; and other cities in the region have introduced a similar two-tier system. Full marks to the minister for at least trying.
I wonder which reason was the most persuasive, or as one might say, which one was Uber alles.