Where have all the taxis gone?

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As the “living with COVID-19” strategy has opened up the economy, more and more people are returning to restaurants, bars and clubs. But as the streets get busy and bustling again, hailing a cab at night has become a headache.

Lim Bong-gyun, general secretary of the Federation of Korean Taxi Workers, said many drivers employed by public taxi operators quit during the pandemic because they felt that continuing to work in the industry would mean working at a loss.

“When there were fewer customers, the drivers hired by the company still had to pay a fee out of their earnings to their operators,” Lim said.

While private taxi drivers keep all the fares they collect, company-owned taxi drivers have a unique pay system. Although they have a very low base salary, they can keep the rates they charge after paying a certain amount to the company. This type of contract remains widespread despite having been declared illegal last year, according to industry sources.

Lee Young-sik, owner and driver of a rental public taxi in Seoul, agrees that working as a corporate-owned taxi driver is “not a stable job.” On a bad day, you could drive for hours but not earn much.

“Many drivers were not working until late at night before the pandemic, especially young people. But as the COVID-19 situation worsened, these workers turned to food or parcel delivery, which is why there are not enough taxis operating at night at the moment, ”a said Lee. “It is improving, however, thanks to ‘living with COVID-19’.”

Taxi shortages have also emerged as a problem in other countries. Many drivers in the UK have left the industry as demand plummets during shutdowns and the drop in numbers raises safety concerns, the BBC reported earlier this month.

Amid the pandemic, the number of company-run taxis in the South Korean capital fell 30%, from 30,527 in 2019 to 20,955 in October this year, according to data from the Seoul Metropolitan Government. .

Despite the declining population of taxi drivers, the demand for taxi rides has skyrocketed in recent weeks.

A record 3.84 million taxis were requested on the app on November 6, according to Kakao Mobility, the operator of the country’s leading taxi service, Kakao T.

Between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. in the first two weeks after the government eased antivirus restrictions earlier this month, the number of calls increased by an average daily 86% compared to the last two weeks of October. .

The Seoul Metropolitan Government said the demand for taxis nearly doubled between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. in the first week of November compared to last month.

In this context, the Seoul authorities decided to temporarily lift a rule requiring private taxi drivers to take a day off after working for two days.

“The rule is to avoid overwork and to make sure vehicles are maintained and drivers are well rested. The lifting of the rule comes as demand has suddenly exceeded supply due to year-end rallies and the life program with COVID-19, ”a Seoul city official said.

To address the imbalance of supply and demand during peak hours, incentives should be provided to drivers working late at night, a representative from Kakao Mobility said.

“It is crucial to ensure that taxi drivers are motivated to work late at night and early in the morning when demand soars. Measures such as incentives should be given so that more drivers are voluntarily on duty, ”the official said.

The company said its premium “no-reject” Kakao T Blue service had alleviated the taxi shortage. Kakao T Blue taxis are dispatched automatically without the drivers knowing the destination to prevent them from refusing to make short trips.

Lim, of the Taxi Workers’ Federation, said that although it was a temporary fix, it would help if taxi drivers were not allowed to choose which passengers to pick up based on their destination. .

But others say the taxi shortage isn’t limited to times of pandemic and that only fundamental change can fix the problem in an industry with an aging workforce. More than 80% of drivers are aged 50 and over, according to 2020 data from the Korea Transportation Safety Authority.

“Even without regulations, few drivers are ready to take passengers and action must be taken to change the situation,” said Ki Woo-seok, director of the Korean Taxi Workers Union.

In Seoul, taxis that run late at night between midnight and 4 a.m. receive a 20% premium – the base fare starts at 4,600 won and after 2 kilometers it is 120 won every 132 meters. But the price increase is below expectations.

“In an industry with an aging workforce, pay and profits are not enough to compensate for the stress that can be experienced when dealing with drunk passengers late at night,” a- he declared.

By Yim Hyun-su ([email protected])


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