The taxi nuttiness in Singapore

Adding some of the tweetstorms that roll in:

In reading this article yesterday I was thinking a bit about the whole taxi situation in Singapore. First off in general I have always been impressed with the taxi ecosystem here – apart from the price but that just goes with Singapore. Let’s not get into that but when it comes to the system generally working I mostly don’t have complaints. I tend to use the comfort SMS system and it has been working fine since the moment I got to town. I find it funny that all the “app” people talk up how apps are better and SMS is old skool. Really? If you are carrying an iPhone you probably have your SMS app open all the time. It’s called iMessage. I can simply text one line – book 528686. That is the zip for my condo and in seconds I get a reply saying it is booked and on the way or sometimes you wait to get a all taxis are busy message. Other times it is busy and you wait a while to get a response. I think it would help the system if you got a reply right away to say it is working on it or something. Sure if taxis are all busy which is during rain or peak times or the dreaded shift change then chances are you won’t get a taxi. Usually during those times you never get a taxi though. No matter what system or app you are using.

But back to the SMS system – there is no simpler method. Every app, all of them, takes more steps to book a cab. Many of them want your destination, have a shitty search function and only work when you have a good connection. At the base of my building I have problems with 4g but SMS always works. Also when I plug in an address versus a zip or a taxi station code, the system usually figures it out anyway or replies telling me it is not exact enough but normally I can edit it to make it work. Still faster than an app.

Which leads me to ask why don’t the other taxi apps add this feature? Even if it only works in Singapore it would offer them another leg up on the apps that don’t. Would be awesome if Uber or Grab implemented this so I simply say – book home. Book work. Dead simple. Faster than fussing with an app. Might also force them to implement the zip code stuff which many are not doing well. For those outside of Singapore – every address in Singapore has its own unique zip code which means no matter where you are the zip code is all that is needed but try plugging in the zip code into Uber or Grab and it normally can’t figure it out but yet the Singapore government offers this data so not sure why they can’t solve it.

For all the haters – make an app that works better than Comfort SMS booking if you want to make some waves in the taxi app race.

Moving on from that the other issue is payments. On this subject, as with the SMS, we can discuss this from a regional angle or from a Singapore angle. To be fair the zip code thing is all about Singapore but SMS can work anywhere if implemented right. On the payments subject we know that credit cards are fine in Singapore. The main reason I stick with Uber today is I don’t have to fuss with money. Sounds silly but I don’t know how many times I take a normal taxi in Singapore and when going to pay I get the dreaded look from the uncle. I don’t have change, my machine isn’t working – shit like that. Well uncle – that is your problem. Not mine. The ATM gave me a 50 – what the hell do you want me to do? Whip out my swiss army knife and cut it in half for you? Carry some freaking change. As to the machine not working – why don’t you tell me when I get in the taxi so I can choose to not take it knowing I have no cash on me. Silly shit. Uber wins cause I never have to give a crap about money. I take the ride and I get out. I know some of the other apps offer it but normally when I cannot book a normal taxi I can get an UberX.

Let’s talk about that later though since we are still on payments. So in Singapore the credit card is fine but regionally it will be a problem. Given that, one of these guys needs to work on some payment systems that will work without cards. Maybe some top up card with loyalty points or hooks to telcos. This is where the telcos don’t get a clue at all. I already get billed via the telco – work out something to allow me to use my phone, which I am using to book the taxi, to pay for my taxi. Throw in some loyalty points for it and lock me in. So the taxi app race is going to be somewhat fought on payments and Singapore will look different than say – Thailand.

Back to the UberX comment, the bigger issue I see in Singapore is that the taxi app race in some sense has exasperated the taxi situation a bit in that if utilization is higher but there are not net new taxis coming into the scene than it makes getting a taxi scarcer. I can see how some folks who are not using the apps might feel left out cause they can’t seem to get a taxi when they want one because the taxis are booked via the apps already. I don’t have the stats on this but it feels credible and hence the call for legislation might be needed. This is one reason why Grab and Uber who are brining other cars into the system are helping but to me only the UberX pricing is affordable to be used daily. The rest of the cars are too expensive. I am not sure where this all goes but it feels like we need more capacity while keeping utilization high which benefits the drivers. It is a delicate dance but the apps, and the startups, are key to making this all work. The competition is great but there will be growing pains.

Not sure if everyone noticed but around the time Grab and Uber entered the scene the comfort SMS booking reply started to share the taxi’s phone number. They never did this before. This allowed me to SMS them with location or other info as needed. Funny thing was talking to the taxi drivers who were asking me how I got their phone number – seems Comfort didn’t tell them they were doing this. For sure this is Comfort trying to compete a bit. I would tell them that I could Google them to find their number. 😉

The other issue I notice is that since all these systems are not integrated I think there is some availability inflation at times. Simple example. Many times you will see when you open the Uber or Grab app that it shows you there are a ton of taxis around you. However when you try and get a booking you get nothing – even though Grab will say there are 45 drivers around you and on the Uber app I see 7 yellow cars driving around. What is happening? My guess is that they are already on a ride with their Comfort system, remember all Comfort drivers are obligated to take a certain amount of Comfort bookings per day, but the Comfort system is not connected to the Grab or Uber app which is just running on their phones. So the Uber and Grab app will show taxis but of course those drivers will not take your booking cause they are already on a ride. I have stood on the street and watched the taxis on the map to see their red lights are on. Even looked inside one at a stop light. So the availability the apps are showing is largely inaccurate.

Lastly – let us get to the “rain” issue which we all know in Singapore can happen at any moment. Most people think the taxis are busy cause everyone who might normally walk, ride or motorcycle are suddenly wanting a taxi. However that is not what is happening. The taxis are actually sitting still due to the insurance issues. There is not a lot of information on this subject but I had confirmed with a few drivers before the deposit issue. The nice thing for this situation is services like UberX tend to help get around this since there is no “company” involved.

All that being said. I am no expert but I use taxis a bit and I am a product guy. So I think about this too much but the app guys could do a lot more to lock me in. Right now only payments are the thing locking me in but I still find the SMS booking to be the easiest to use. The apps guys should think about that more when designing their apps. God knows investors are throwing money at this space but so far I don’t see a lot if innovation – just marketing.

carry on…

2 thoughts on “The taxi nuttiness in Singapore

  1. christopher

    so interesting addition to the Taxi game in SGN. Yesterday it was raining. about 5:30pm. No cabs available via sms to Comfort. Long queue at the taxi stand. used Grab Taxi and got a cab in under 30 sec. took about 8 minutes, but hey, its raining, peak hours and I wanna head home and have a cocktail. it was one of those nights. so in the cab I ask the driver if he takes cards, as I have Cab Charge or a CC. no cash for some reason. He said sure, but he will charge me 17% of the fare.

    Unless I want to switch to Uber.

    So he cancels my Grab Taxi, I send a request via Uber, which he takes, while I am in the car. Note that we have yet to move so he will get his full fare. Fair enough. So he takes the Uber request, we get on our way, and he says that Uber not only pays him more, but its just so much easier on the billing side. because he doesnt give a shit about what card, as its your card in the system. but he said he gets more traffic via Grab taxi, that the request system is more robust. And he gets people to flip the GT reservation to Uber most of the time.

    so Singapore Taxi Uncle is basically hacking the taxi ecosystem to his advantage. And he got me home for 13 buck from across town before traffic came to a crawl. And I had a drink. So I got that going for me. Which is nice.


Leave a Reply