There are plenty of taxicabs in Hong Kong — 18,138 to be exact — but it does not mean hailing a cab is a smooth breeze. In a city like Hong Kong where transport options are plenty, taxi remains a popular ride of choice because it’s relatively cheap, can be hailed in most streets, and offer more direct point-to-point transport service in the city.
There are plenty of reasons to take the taxi instead of public transport. For instance, when traveling with kids too tired to walk from a theme park excursion, carrying too many shopping items from an outlet mall, staying late outdoors for drinks at Lan Kwai Fong or rushing to the airport and make the flight.
However, finding them, let alone riding them, can be challenging at times. Rainy days, drivers selecting routes and alleged racial discrimination make rides more difficult for some people.
Now, here comes Uber, which comes apparently takes a heads-on approach of the usual grips many Hong Kong riders complain about. So what advantages does Uber, the newcomer, have over the traditional red, green and sky-blue taxis plying Hong Kong’s streets?
Booking a ride.
While some taxis are affiliated have smartphone apps and can be booked by phone, Uber takes it to the next level. Riders have option to board which type of vehicle based on car make, capacity and ride-sharing option. If that’s not enough, Uber also has option to request and pay for a conventional taxi service and pay the standard fare structure.
Almost all taxicabs in Hong Kong utilize Toyota Crown Comfort model. In recent years the introduction of Toyota Prius and the more spacious Nissan Syncab or wheelchair accessible Diamond Cab has offered extra options for passengers, but these additions are still way outnumbered by the 4- or 5-seater sedans.
Uber features a different variety of vehicles. From Alfa Romeo 147 to Audi S4 servicing the more affordable UberX to the more elegant Aston Martin Rapide, Audi S7 and BMW X6 for UberBLACK, passengers who have never tried them now have that option.
Whether short or long trips, passengers may have observed typical experiences on board a Hong Kong taxi cab. The moment you enter the cab, sometimes you’d notice a strange smell that might come from the vintage leather seats, body odor or take away box left unfinished.
Dashboards may be adorned with interesting things, like an array of mobile phones, enough to distract the driver during the journey with phone conversations.
One’s wish is to reach the destination without much fuss such as driver going the wrong or longer than the ideal way or getting charged more than the actual meter reading in the guise of toll fees and luggage surcharge.
Uber rider experience must have started with that car model distinctive from traditional taxicabs, the clean ambiance, and the supposedly smooth ride to a passenger’s destination.
Passenger pick up.
Uber and traditional Hong Kong taxis don’t have much difference where to pick up passengers. However, for cross-harbor passengers (those traveling from Hong Kong island to Kowloon/New Territories or vice versa) there are designated taxi stands which newcomers may find difficult to understand at first.
While it’s a hit or miss or long wait catching a Hong Kong taxicab especially at a time everyone wants to ride them, long queues at Pedder Street in Central during busy hours for example, riders are given more certainty with Uber. Obviously, if all Uber cars are taken, you’ll never get to ride one until someone’s available. But that’s different from traditional taxis where you might just be at the wrong place at the wrong time to hail them and, sadly, you were unaware.
If you indeed get confirmation of an Uber ride, you’ll get notified of the driver’s name, the car model, its car plate number and estimate time to arrive at your designated pick up point.
Despite the self-touted tag as Asia’s World City, many of Hong Kong’s taxi drivers, often the front-liners to visitors, have yet to understand basic English language. If that’s not enough, some of them lack proper manners.
According to Transport Complaints Unit of the Transport and Housing Bureau, the number of complaints against taxi drivers rose from 4,670 in 2003 to 10,060 in 2014. Most of the complaints are drivers refusing hire, refusing to agree to intended destination, taking longer than normal route, and overcharging.
There are also Uber drivers who speak little English but at least, based on experience, are corteous enough. Part of the reason behind this could be Uber’s review system which, at passenger’s discretion, drivers get rated based on how the ride experience went. In many ways, Uber riding is not just bringing a passenger from point A to point B; it’s also the interaction with the driver, the atmosphere inside the vehicle and the passenger’s convenience before and after the ride was consummated.
Sometimes, out of haste, passengers take the taxicab without first realizing they ran out of cash. So an argument may arise or once driver does not have enough cash to as change for HK$500 bills. Many taxi cabs do not accept Octopus card or credit card payments, so err on the side of caution and bring enough bills.
But even before you take Uber vehicle, you kind of know how much you’ll pay for the journey. At that time a passenger gets a calculated decision to take Uber or not. For taxi passengers, there are taxi auto fare websites available to give estimates but they are not tied with the driver, who may take a different route from pick up point to intended destination.
Linking your Uber account with your credit card or PayPal makes it more convenient as transfer of payment is done virtually that you’re like getting off the car you own since you never opened your wallet and handed out cash to the driver. Like taxi receipts, Uber also does the same, along with details of the route, calculation of fare and time of journey for office reimbursement or company expense calculation purposes.
In general Hong Kong has honest drivers, and leaving items likely get returned. But this isn’t always the case. To passengers who are conscious about possibilities, they take the taxi plate number and name of driver while the journey is in progress. But most passengers don’t do it. So when they realize they left their luggage, smartphone or handbag in the taxi, they are only left with arbitrary clues such as time of travel and origin-destination information.
With Uber, details of the trip history is registered in your phone app, and getting back to the driver is a much easier transaction than chasing a traditional taxicab driver.
Uber’s presence in the market may present a challenge to Hong Kong’s taxi service to improve customer experience. There are things that passengers may find unpleasant about Uber. For example, while Uber’s fare estimate gives an idea how much a passenger pays even if its structure, though it appears fairly well-planned — UberX has HK$7 base fare plus length of travel and distance also used in fare calculation — is not without its fair share of critics.
Uber also applies surge pricing structure during higher demand periods to ensure reliability and availability to those willing to pay more. Although that’s an option for a passenger to take and not imposed only when he or she is on board the cab the surge pricing fare adjustment defeats the basic fare calculation formula.
The bottomline is that with taxi cabs and Uber, plus a dozen or so other similar services available in Hong Kong, passengers have more options on the road. Hopefully this raises the level of satisfaction among the public.