Meter Maid

A recent incident at an Admiralty taxi rank left me wondering just how determined Hong Kong is to put the emphasis on quality rather than quantity in our tourism promotion efforts.

And a recent visit to Beijing left me wondering just how advanced our community is in adopting modern technology, despite our ambitions to develop and market ourselves as a hub for such activities.

The taxi case first. It was nearly lunchtime; a fairly long queue of would-be passengers was gradually being accommodated by arriving vehicles. I moved up to second place behind only a smartly dressed young lady. She boarded the first taxi and almost immediately jumped out again. She gestured to me to take her place with the words “He doesn’t take cards, I have no cash.” As she moved away to look for an ATM and I entered the cab, I was embarrassed, even ashamed. How primitive a society we must seem to international travellers from around the world – the well-heeled ones we say we are particularly keen to attract -- how backward compared to rival business and tourism centres in the region.

A quick on-line search on return to office suggested of our 18,000 plus taxis, only some 600 are equipped to accept electronic payment linked to the meter which can be settled by Octopus or credit card. Other individual drivers may have installed other links. I remember paying my taxi fare by credit card in Singapore 10 years ago.

An article in this newspaper in January reported that a special meter had been developed with support from the Innovation and Technology Fund to facilitate electronic payment. It would be tested on 100 taxis in March then start to be used from April onwards. It was hoped 1,000 taxis would be fitted with the device by the third quarter.

Wonderful. At the rate of 1,000 per six months, all taxis here should be able to accept electronic payment by 2033. So we will have caught up with Singapore after only 20 years.

Is there no way the process can be speeded up? I think there is. All taxis have to renew their licence annually. We can give notice that from a future date (say 1 January 2025) all taxis must have a functioning device which permits fares to be paid electronically before their licence will be renewed. Drivers are reputed to prefer payment in cash so such a step would not be popular and the Transport Bureau may not be keen to stir up a hornet’s nest. But have the various tourism bodies (Tourism Board, Tourism Commissioner, Minister for Tourism) lobbied sufficiently hard? Is it not past time to push for a conclusion? How about concurrently with the latest fare increase?

The lawyers may advise that introducing such a provision under existing legislation is ultra vires. It must be at least arguable in 2024 that a taxi not so equipped is not fit for purpose, but if the contrary view prevails then it should not be beyond the wit of man to secure passage of a short enabling bill. The administration should stand up for consumers and the economy, not submit to old-fashioned vested interests.

The visit to Beijing in April provided another salutary lesson. I am told it is still possible to pay the taxi fare in cash but I never saw anyone do so, you can certainly pay electronically, usually by Alipay or WeChat Pay on your phone. But the case is largely academic as every trip the family took during that week was by a vehicle summoned on the Didi App. (Didi is effectively now a verb in the mainland – “let’s Didi it”).

Just go on the App (your phone tells them where you are) and within seconds you have a notification of arrival time, car registration, and fare. If you agree the terms the fare is paid automatically. And you need to look lively too: if you book the car from premises on a higher floor, you had better call the lift immediately as by the time you get down to street level, the vehicle will probably be pulling up. You can even use your phone to tell the café where you are headed to prepare your beverage and breakfast croissant and it will be ready for your arrival, also paid for.

Now the equivalent car service is already available in Hong Kong, it is called Uber, and many local people have the App on their phone (full disclosure, me too). But instead of promoting its use as a way to improve service quality including driver behaviour the authorities harass the company and attempt to devise penalty schemes and other methods of securing the improvements. Who remembers the “luxury taxi” proposal of a few years ago? Or the new bad conduct points system? But why are we insisting on reinventing the wheel?

There are various other things we can do to brush up our appeal to big spending visitors. Head of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office Xia Baolong recently urged we apply more creative energy and I agree. In the interim we should stop applying the word “mega” to every routine activity – it is an abuse of the vocabulary and devalues the term. A large children’s balloon in the shape of a heart is a trivial fun thing, not a mega event; likewise a bunch of egg-shaped objects in different colours. Nobody anywhere will make a special trip, book an air ticket or a hotel to see them. We should save the term for real needle movers like the Sevens, Liv Golf, the International Council for Commercial Arbitration congress, or the Savantas Global Prosperity Summit headlined by a Nobel Laureate. These made a difference. They were Megas.