Don't run bike taxi rivals off the road
Like other unsolved problems this country has been facing for decades, the safety and reliability of motorcycle taxis are being addressed through authoritarian means, using nationalism and a perceived threat to national security as a pretext to ban services by foreign operators who have more innovative solutions than our inefficient and incompetent regulators.
On Tuesday, civil servants at the Department of Land Transport (DLT) and City Hall as well as Metropolitan Police and army officers ordered GrabBike and UberMoto, two popular smartphone-based motorcycle taxi services, to stop operating, accusing them of violating public transport regulations.
What regulations have these companies, whose mobile apps allow customers to request rides and apply to work as drivers, violated?
According to Col Kanthachai Prachuab-aree, deputy commander of the 1st Division, King's Guard, who attended the meeting, the services were illicit and a risk to national security as they triggered conflicts between both the firms' drivers and conventional motorcycle taxis registered with the state.
Nopporn Wong-Anan is deputy editor, Bangkok Post.
The firms also failed to pay taxes in line with the law and their businesses stole jobs from Thais, he claimed.
One wonders what army personnel have to do with regulating motorcycle taxi drivers.
Indeed, since Prayut Chan-o-cha ousted the civilian government of then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014, the army has become involved in numerous businesses from overpriced government lottery tickets to raids on mafia figures' homes, leading to the current effort to regulate this mode of public transport, notorious for its rude drivers, lack of safety and rip-offs.
In conjunction with the DLT and the police, military personnel were instrumental in regulating the conventional bike taxi service, with the launch of a registration system in a move aimed at eradicating the dark influence of mafia preying on poor drivers. But after nearly two years trying to solve the problems, the general public is not satisfied and there is plenty of room for improvement, a gap that has been filled satisfactorily by IT geniuses at GrabBike and UberMoto who seized an opportunity.
Uber, the San Francisco-based maker of the ride-sharing mobile app which operates in more than 400 cities in 70 countries, in February launched its motorbike taxi service, UberMoto, in Thailand, the first country in the world where Uber has offered this option, months after its rival Malaysia-founded Grab launched its service.
Business for both "foreign" companies is so brisk that conventional drivers aren't very happy and this has got the authorities worried.
Earlier this month a Chulalongkorn University student was harassed by a motorcycle taxi driver after calling GrabBike. He posted a video showing the incident on his Facebook page, which garnered more than a million views over a few days and several thousand comments, most of them asking why Thais have to put up with unreliable and sometimes unsafe services, not only from motorcycle taxis but taxi cabs too.
One comment below his post says: "We seem to run into more and more taxi drivers who behave like thugs. They seem bent on making a scene as evident in video clips of quarrels released almost daily."
Another user named Kimhong said that given a choice between GrabBike, which sends polite drivers exactly where you want, takes credit card payments, provides a better service, feels safer and gives you a crash helmet too; and motorcycle taxis which are less easy to catch, more expensive, take only cash, talk to you harshly and provide no crash helmet, it should be obvious which service people will pick.
From consumers' point of view, such apps offer a more reliable service than the conventional type, the alternative regulators can't guarantee they can provide.
Col Kanthachai said after the Tuesday meeting authorities have worked hard to get rid of illegitimate operators and standardise public transport, but we continue to see non-app, DLT-registered bike drivers driving recklessly, running red lights, wearing no helmets and overcharging customers at will.
The authorities insist they need to arrest about 20 motorcycle taxi drivers who work with GrabBike and UberMoto a week, or shut down their operations which they claim are unfair to the 100,000 or so motorcycle taxi drivers who operate legally.
Under the existing law, those found using private vehicles to provide public service for passengers face a fine of up to 2,000 baht and drivers who fail to dress in line with DLT regulations or lack a proper licence can be fined up to 1,000 baht.
I also have no faith in the smartphone-based motorcycle taxi app the DLT is planning to launch.
Though information including the mobile phone numbers of registered motorcycle drivers will be available on the app allowing customers to contact them directly, we all know state services are usually poor and monopoly state services can be even worse.
Despite military rule, this country is supposed to have a free economy, in which competition among the various players is encouraged, not suppressed. State agencies should play the role of facilitator and sensible regulator, not monopoly player.
Nopporn Wong-Anan is deputy editor, Bangkok Post.