The evolution of car services
STREETLIFE - Nigel Paul C. Villarete (The Freeman) - March 22, 2015 - 12:00am

Our discussions on Uber and other new and emerging hi-tech personal transport services have drawn quite a number of reactions from readers, majority of which were inclined to like and embrace these modern technologies.  "It's very convenient," seems to be the consensus, and yet we can't shrug off the fact that a number of countries, states, and cities, have banned Uber or otherwise placed restrictions on its use.  We need to understand the nuances of its evolution, especially on how it evolved over the years.  Using them is a personal choice.

Firstly, we have to place taxis within the context of the spectrum transportation services.  In general, transport can be categorized as private or public.  The former is usually personal, or for a few (using a car) while the latter is usually by public, mass transportation, where the ride is shared by others and with a fare, and usually, with a fixed route and a time schedule.  In between the two, a third mode might exist (without a fixed route, or without a schedule, or without both).  In this belong paratransits like jeepneys, and car rentals like taxis.

The concept of taxis has been with us since the last century.  It's simple enough - taxis roam the city hoping someone needs a ride; passengers needing a ride hail them, and pay the fare as registered in the taxi-meter.  Of course, it's still a game of chance, although taxi drivers generally know where most passengers would be.  In the last decade, getting a taxi (and the driver getting passengers) was improved through the introduction of radio communication and centralized booking system - you call a central telephone number, the operator radios taxis cruising in your area and connect you with a particular cab that'll pick you up.

The introduction of smartphones in recent years has further enhanced the system.  Some people even have favorite taxi drivers, or "suki," whom they can just call directly. Smartphone applications like Uber and GrabTaxi made connections and pairing even easier and "smarter."  The main difference with Uber is that these are not taxis or any other kind of public transport vehicles; these are "private" cars, operated by their owners (and drivers) for public use, on the side.  That's where the main contention is, as currently debated.  But there are other angles.

With each step of the evolution, the newer technologies always impose a disadvantage on the drivers who fail to adapt.  The centralized radio system made it quicker to connect taxis with their passengers, but this makes it more difficult for isolated radio-less taxis to get passengers.  App-driven systems like GrabTaxi make life even more difficult for other drivers clueless on smartfones.  Maybe that's why they call it "Grab" in the first place.  The only way to keep up is buy a smartphone yourself and learn how to navigate through Android or iOS.

Of course, it's getting more convenient, as everybody would seem to agree.  Many will argue that the only way to improve is to compete.  But note that the poor taxi driver who can't afford a smartphone may sooner lose his job, while a rich car-owning guy, would become richer because he made "more efficient utilization of idle assets."  The last economic principle makes sense, but how about the risk of widening the gap between the rich and the poor?

On the macro side, making "personal car services" more efficient, could drive people from public transportation to private modes.  This is clearly an undesirable transport policy.  We may need to remind ourselves that getting achieving personal individual convenience may not always mean everybody will be equally benefitted - in fact, it might make the situation worse for the general public.  It's a tricky situation, one that requires deeper and more robust technical and economic analyses in transportation science and urban policy in order to arrive at a decision that would be best and optimum for our cities and its people.

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