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    Aug 13, 2014

    Where's the taxi when you need it?

    THERE was a recent newspaper report on speculation that taxi surcharges, such as the peak-hour and city-area levies, would be axed, but passengers would face a higher flagdown fare of $4.50 and a steeper meter rate.

    Overall, taxi drivers would earn more, giving them more incentive to pick up passengers.

    While National Taxi Association adviser Ang Hin Kee termed the rumours hearsay, they beget the question whether Singapore's taxi industry is in need of a change.

    A confusing fare structure - with more than eight different types of surcharge, and varying flagdown fares and meter charges depending on the cab model and company - is the tip of the iceberg.

    The larger problem may be an inherent mismatch in demand and supply, said one expert.

    "During peak hours, passengers will complain: They want a taxi and can't get one... But during off-peak hours, who complains? The taxi drivers say they have no business," noted Lee Der Horng, a transport researcher at the National University of Singapore.

    But why is this the case?

    Dr Lee suggested that it boils down to the "origin and destination" of commuters. During the morning rush hour, some 40 per cent of trips, whether made by public or private transport, head into the city area.

    After dropping off their passengers in the city, the taxis tend to remain there. For one thing, passengers outside are too scattered to make them worthwhile to find.

    So taxis wait in the city until they find another passenger. This creates a shortage outside the city area.

    The Electronic Road Pricing may also act as a "psychological barrier" for taxi drivers, as they will not want to travel into certain areas without ferrying a passenger.

    Park Byung Joon, head of the urban transport management programme at SIM University, noted that, fundamentally, everybody wants to travel during the peak hours, and a shortage of taxis is inevitable.

    However, the solution cannot be the addition of more taxis.

    "We cannot match our capacity level at the peak demand level. Overall, the utilisation will be too low and there will be a waste of resources," Dr Park said.

    There are two possible solutions. The Land Transport Authority's push for companies to adopt flexible working arrangements and flexi-travel may be a step in the right direction, Dr Park said.

    "If everybody has to move and be at work at 8.30am...nothing can be solved," he said.

    The other solution is to decentralise economic activity from the central business district. Once it moves to regions such as Jurong and Changi South, taxis will be better spread out across the island.

    Dr Lee said that, while surcharges and booking fees may attempt to better match supply and demand, they also have their collateral effects. When demand is high, for example, taxi drivers may choose to just wait around for call-ins.

    While it's still early days, both transport experts said that third-party booking apps like GrabTaxi and Easy Taxi could help solve the demand-supply mismatch.

    They create a "pooled dispatch system" which links passengers and taxis through their GPS locations, Dr Park added.

    It's not an easy nut to crack. And something as blunt as changing the fare structure certainly won't solve the shortage of taxis when you need them.