ASK TAXI DRIVERS and they will unload a litany of complaints on how Uber or Grab (or both) have been competing unfairly, no thanks to a government that has supposedly abandoned their lot.

Taxis seek fair shake after disruption
Taxicab companies seek a shorter process that will allow them to field cabs as quickly as Uber approves private car registrations. — BW File Photo

Not that average commuters will care.

Only a few years ago, taxis reigned with impunity. They refused to pick up passengers if they weren’t headed the driver’s way and demanded a premium for riding in their dingy vehicle while expressing uncouth behavior bordering on (one could say) presidential.

This explains why Uber, the rider-sharing service, found it easy to encroach into taxicab territory. Passengers, after all, were only too willing to pay extra for cleaner cabs and more congenial drivers.

Starting 2014, when Uber arrived in Manila, revenues of taxicab companies fell by double-digit levels, according to Jesus Manuel “Bong” C. Suntay, who heads the Philippine National Taxicab Operators Association (PNTOA).

“We do not fear Uber. We don’t oppose them. We won’t oppose what’s going to be good for passengers,” said Mr. Suntay, a former Quezon City councilor who owns Basic Taxi, which has a fleet of several hundred units.

“What we oppose is the unequal treatment,” he said.

What taxicab companies want is a fair shake from government, especially in issuing a franchise or a provisional authority (a temporary franchise).

Private cars can pick up and carry passengers as soon as Uber approves their registration, a process that takes only a day or two, including the issuance of temporary franchises.

In contrast, cab companies’ franchise applications aren’t processed quite as fast.

Unlike cars registered on Uber (which have reached 24,000, as of September 2016), cab companies have to wait three months to secure approval to operate taxis.

And this is where the story gets more complicated than your BFF’s Facebook relationship status.

To allow ride-sharing services, the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) created a new transport category. Issued in 2015, the new rules covered what are now known as the Transport Network Vehicle Services (TNVS) to accommodate the likes of Uber.

But while the Philippines may have been the first in the world to issue ride-sharing rules, the new regulation provided a shortcut to securing a taxicab franchise — something the authorities stopped issuing years ago.

As a result, the ease of ride-sharing registration on Uber benefitted operators of “colorum” taxis that, for years, have been running without any franchise.

“Why run as illegal or unregistered when you can enroll in Uber?” Mr. Suntay said.

Nevertheless, the industry official believes that the process of transferring franchises — some of which last 10 years — from old cabs to brand new replacements should be shortened.

After all, new cars acquired by taxicab companies, unlike Uber vehicles, can’t just be driven off the lot and pick up anyone waiting for a ride around the corner.

Besides securing franchises, these cars need to be fixed up. They need signages and logos painted and fare meters installed — all of which take up additional time, on top of the three-month waiting period.

And since these cars can’t pick up passengers during the wait, cab companies have to scramble for additional cash to meet monthly payments for the units, according to Mr. Suntay.

“Since [the government] allows Uber to use private vehicles to ferry passengers, why won’t it allow [cab companies] to use private vehicles to pick up passengers while waiting for our franchises? Why is it okay for Uber to use private vehicles and not okay for private taxi operators to use their vehicles?” Mr. Suntay said.

The disparity, however, seemingly ended last July, when the LTFRB stopped accepting TNVS franchise applications — a move the taxi industry supports.

“There should be a study of passenger demand and road capacity because you don’t want to flood the streets with a particular mode of public transport. For Uber, it’s a free-for-all,” Mr. Suntay said.

The LTFRB Board has yet to respond to queries on the matter, but Uber Philippines already warned that its service’s reliability may “start to go down” if the suspension remains indefinite.

With fewer cars going online — since no new TNVS applications are being accepted nor processed — Uber users who previously left their cars at home might be prompted to take them out again.

“That’s going to be unfortunate. We don’t want to have to buy more cars if we don’t have to,” said Laurence L. Cua, Uber Philippine country manager.

“I’m not saying that it’s bad to buy cars, people have the right to do that — it’s just it’s always more helpful if they have the option not to,” he said.

So far, the LTFRB has given no indication as to when it will decide to lift the suspension on Uber franchises.

But there’s no question about it: passengers are better off, now that ride-sharing services have become widely available.

Next time they get rebuffed by taxis, they can always use their fingers — not for rude hand gestures against picky cabbies — but to tap on their smartphones to get rides. — Robert J.A. Basilio, Jr.