It’s all about choice
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Tokyo taxi fees are notoriously high. Upon arriving at Narita Airport about 20 years ago, a Korean new to Japan took a taxi to Shinjuku. He did not imagine an hour’s ride in the cab would cost him 30,000 yen ($265).
The starting fare for Tokyo taxis has come down a bit. However, given how fast the meter now ticks — 80 yen per every 237 meters (777 feet) — there’s not much of a savings. Any ride beyond two kilometers (1.2 mile) is actually more expensive than before.
Yet passengers don’t complain. A cab ride in Japan can be hard on the wallet, but it’s easy on the eyes, nose, and ear. The late Aoki Sadao, an ethnic Korean also known as Yoo Bong-shik and founder of progressive taxi company MK Taxi, said his drivers would have to undergo retraining if they forget to say any one of these four greetings to their customers — “Thank you. I’m your driver named XXX who will be taking you to your destination safely.” “Is XXX the place you are going to?” “Please check if you have all your belongings.” “Thank you for using our taxi.”
When a female passenger gets out of one of those cabs late at night, the driver must keep the lights on to show her the way in the dark. A driver should have umbrellas ready to hand over to a passenger if rain suddenly falls. A cab ride in Tokyo offer passengers an old-fashioned yet refreshing and sentimental experience.
Taxis in the U.S. capital city of Washington D.C. are also gruesomely expensive. The base fare is $3.50. Use of the trunk costs an extra 50 cents, and there’s a dollar surcharge for every extra passenger. When you include tax and tip, a short cab ride costs more than $10.
The cars arrive at the very location and time the passenger wants. Once a car is called, the passenger can check reviews of the driver rated by other customers. I cancel a ride if the driver’s rating is below 4 out of a perfect five.
That’s not all. The driver can play one of my favorite songs if I’ve noted my favorite music genre in the app. Some drivers even have bottled water at the ready. Such service would have been unthinkable in America in the past. After competition from car-hailing services, the quality of common taxi services also improved sharply. Competition hones competitiveness.
The base taxi fare in Seoul is expected to go up to 4,000 won ($3.50) from the current 3,000 won. The time has come for a rise since the rate has been frozen for five years. But passengers are generally shocked by the size of the hike: 33.3 percent. The rate jumped instead of going up incrementally because politicians put off any increase in fear of losing votes in elections.
The question is whether the cab drivers really deserve the new hefty fares considering the services they offer. The right to choose for passengers should be equally important as the livelihoods of cab drivers.
Car-hailing services like Uber are prohibited in Korea due to a plethora of domestic regulations and vehement opposition from taxi drivers and the taxi industry. Other governments have had the same concerns. But they first allowed a trial experience and then came up with regulations or measures to address unwanted side effects.
This is how innovation is made possible. Toyota has joined hands with Softbank to launch car-hailing services like Uber and self-driving car services as well. General Motors plans to introduce a robot taxi service next year. We should have the right to choose between an old-fashioned yet satisfying taxi service and a digital taxi service.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 10, Page 30