Uber’s controversial tie-up with Hong Kong taxi firms pays off as monthly ride-hailing requests more than double since launch despite protests hammering city

Cannix Yau

A controversial partnership between Uber and Hong Kong taxi companies has posted a 2.5-fold increase in monthly ride-hailing requests since March, bucking the trend in an economy suffering badly after nearly six months of anti-government protests.

The service, Uber Flash, which matches riders with the closest UberX vehicle or taxi via the ride-hailing app, has taken more than 2.4 million trip requests in the nine months since its debut with a 2.5-fold growth on monthly orders, Uber said in a statement on Friday.

“The overwhelming amount of positive feedback we’ve received on Flash demonstrates that Uber and taxis can together bring smart mobility options to riders and an efficient way to earn for taxi driver-partners,” it said.

The ride-hailing firm said in one case, a single user completed close to 700 trips since March, while another rider used Flash 11 times in just one day.

Uber says the earnings of cabbies has risen more than 20 per cent through the scheme. Photo: AP

Uber also released its long-awaited safety report which revealed that there were more than 3,000 sexual assaults in the last year and nine murders in the US. The ride-hailing company released the 84-page safety report on Thursday, seeking to quantify the misconduct and deaths that occur on its system and argue that its service is safer than alternatives.

The company said the Uber Flash scheme in Hong Kong had seen 30-fold growth in the number of registered taxi driver-partners while the earnings of cabbies rose more than 20 per cent on average after using Uber.

However, it declined to say how many taxi firms or drivers it was working with as the firm had faced a boycott by the industry for operating Uber rides, which are illegal for carrying paying passengers without a hire car licence.

Under existing legislation, Uber Flash, which charges flexible fares rather than by meter, is lawful, as the service operates by “hire as a whole”, allowing cabbies and passengers to agree on the fare.

Premium taxi scheme holds little appeal for public, says survey

It was a bumpy ride for Uber Flash when it was launched in March as a key taxi partner, Tin Shing Motors, pulled out at the last minute following threats from within the industry.

The taxi trade claims Uber has been stealing its business and threatening the survival of cabbies. According to government statistics, Hongkongers took an average of 889,000 taxi journeys a day in 2018, down 8.6 per cent from 972,600 in 2014 when Uber launched its service in Hong Kong.

In September, when the city was hard hit by escalating political turmoil, the number of daily taxi rides dropped further to 860,900 a day.

The taxi trade has been vocal in its opposition to Uber. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

The city is also in a recession and expects to see gross domestic product contract 1.3 per cent in 2019 from last year, when it grew 3 per cent from 2017.

Uber has long sought to get a break in Hong Kong, where a population of more than 7 million is served by 18,163 licensed taxis, and about 40,000 active drivers. The government has stood firm in cracking down on the company, with proposed increases in penalties for drivers caught providing illegal rides.

Estyn Chung, general manager of Uber Hong Kong, said the company would continue to deepen its cooperation with the taxi industry such as introducing new taxi-related services.

“We are continuously refining our technology to improve Flash and introduce new taxi-related offerings, because we take our relationship with the taxi industry and the future of the point-to-point transport sector very seriously,” he said.

Cabby Bill Wong, 53, who joined Uber Flash in April, found his monthly income from driving had risen by more than 20 per cent from HK$17,000 to HK$21,000.

In May, he expanded his partnership by becoming a “garage manager” for Uber – matching cabbies to Uber Flash, or Uber drivers to the taxi industry by leasing them cabs he rented from other firms.

As well as driving a taxi, Bill Wong is a ‘garage manager’ for Uber Flash. Photo: Jonathan Wong

This new role enabled him to earn HK$60 commission per day for every taxi he leased. He has successfully matched about 30 cases, bringing him extra income of up to HK$54,000 per month.

“I think this business model is really good and creating a win-win deal for both taxi drivers and taxi firms. Nowadays, the taxi industry sees business falling as many taxis are left vacant. The Uber Flash model can increase the income of taxi drivers while a lot of vacant taxis could be leased for running Uber Flash rides,” he said.

“The taxi industry should learn to accept the benefits of this kind of partnership. Uber is not their rival. It’s just a platform for making a win-win deal for everybody.”

However, Association of Taxi Industry Development vice-chairman Ng Kam-wah said the group would stick to its principles and refuse to partner with Uber.

“Uber is our rival and we don’t want to send the wrong message to it that we accept its illegal ride-hailing operation. I’ll refuse to lease my taxis to those working with Uber,” he said.

But Ng admitted that cabbies had taken a beating with their income plunging about 30 per cent to HK$13,000 a month from HK$18,000 because of the ongoing protests.

“Some cabbies are afraid of running into danger. Whenever there are protests they will choose to take leave,” he said.

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