Uber, GrabTaxi: Disruption isn’t enough

For a metropolis with run-down trains, horrible traffic, and “choosy” taxi drivers, the app-based Uber and GrabTaxi services give Metro Manila folk a new choice.

With a few taps, one could order a private car and get past the usual troubles hailing a taxi or driving one’s own car. The rates are reasonably lower than old metered-taxis or are fixed. Payments are done either through auto-debit or in cash.

This level of ease and convenience is what many love about Uber and GrabTaxi. It allows the use of the Internet, our phones, and electronic transactions, to get something done. It is also safer: Uber, GrabTaxi, and passengers know the drivers’ name, contact number, location. Yet another app would suggest the best route possible.

The ride-sharing apps have obviously disrupted the transportation industry. As expected, taxi operators went nuts, crazy and ballistic — and the LTFRB saw yet another opportunity to show its opportunism and mediocrity as regulator. They are now the face of the clear-and-present threats to new services like Uber and GrabTaxi.

Big, bad old taxi operators

According to Uber and GrabTaxi drivers, there are many big old taxi operators who are now joining on the bandwagon. They are signing deals with Uber and GrabTaxi, bringing with them their drivers and cars by the dozens and hundreds. Yes, they are the same taxi operators who run the metered-taxi services to levels we absolutely hate, who cheat and oppress their drivers, and publicly oppose Uber.

The effect of the involvement of big old taxi operators is immediate. If you thought the drivers are getting a way better deal under Uber and GrabTaxi, think again. The big old taxi operators have started to threaten the system from their position as “partners” in control of many drivers and cars. At their own levels, they changed the deals about daily and weekly driver revenues.

If left unchecked, the big old taxi operators would threaten Uber and GrabTaxi from within. They have started to game the system, and appear to be hell-bent about turning it into another monstrous service, no thanks to their unmitigated greed and contempt for both drivers and passengers.

Mediocre agencies

There is, of course, the LTFRB. After proudly announcing the world’s first official regulations on ride-sharing apps, it has used its public office as a bully pulpit, threatening drivers with apprehension while doing their business.

Can’t LTFRB just do its job and summon the top executives of Uber and GrabTaxi to make them explain why they have not obtained the required franchises? Ain’t that easier and better?

The LTFRB and the DOTC do not occupy the moral high ground about transportation. Many have said it, but it is important to repeat it. They have lots of explaining and doing to fix transportation in the metropolis and many other places in the country. The nerve, right? This is the same DOTC whose mediocrity could be seen in the condition of our trains, seaports and airports!

If they really want to serve and protect the public, the agencies should go after the following: (1) big old taxi operators; (2) the private owners and operators of the MRT and LRT; (3) the bus operators whose business practices run down their buses, drivers and conductors and endanger passengers and the public; and (4) abusive drivers of private and public vehicles.

Making noise about the apprehension of Uber and GrabTaxi “in the interest of public safety” is pure BS, when the DOTC and TTFRB have the power to summon top executives to compel them to get the required permits.

But here’s the rub: Backing Uber and GrabTaxi is not enough because even after they finally comply with the regulations, we all have to contend with the daily reality where these apps operate in and feed on. Even the entry into the scene of opportunist big old taxi operators should be a cause for alarm.

Convenience for everyone

Make no mistake: Frequent users of Uber and GrabTaxi are justified in raising a howl over what the LTFRB and DOTC. But that is not enough. The apps don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist in the Philippines, where there are not too many credit card-holders and where banks don’t care about debit card usage. Chances are, we are a small percentage in Metro Manila who enjoy the services. That’s a small percentage out of about 10-12 million.

Uber and GrabTaxi cannot be our medium- and long-term solutions to the transportation woes in the metropolis. The wealthy and the upper middle class who compose the bulk of Uber and GrabTaxi big partners and users, and especially the rest of our people who have a few choices all deserve way better mass transportation systems to be put in place and where both drivers and passengers get better deals. For all the good that they bring, Uber and GrabTaxi executives don’t have these goals in mind. But we Filipinos do.

Let the ease and convenience of ride-sharing and virtual private cars compel us to confront and solve the reasons why we prefer these apps in the first place. They cannot substitute for the solutions we know we desperately need.

Because whether one is riding comfortably in a cool Uber, seated in a bus or jeep, lining up to the MRT and LRT, waiting for a delayed flight, we have to face the same reality of transportation woes that are big and demand collective action. As in most social things we do and social things we need: The idea that “we’re all in this together” is better than “you’re on your own”.

Let’s put it this way: Never fail to contextualize the conveniences we enjoy. Yes, we must defend those conveniences. But let those conveniences become the rule that benefits everyone, not the exception that’s just for a few. This is especially true in transportation, and we all know and want that.

First published in the Manila Bulletin, 15 Aug. 2015. Slightly edited for clarity. Featured image from Kabayan Tech.