x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A better managed taxi fleet is in Abu Dhabi's interests

There is no question Abu Dhabi has made great strides transforming and regulating its taxi industry. But for the small army of drivers on the constant hunt for fares, changes are clearly needed.

From the front seat of his silver taxi, DB surveys the capital's crowded streets with one eye on the rear view, the other on his future. His calculation is simple: the more fares he rings up, the more cash for his family back home.

These days, though, a dearth of customers and a glut of competition has put the brakes on his planning. "We are like cows just getting milked," DB said during a recent shift. "If the grass is good, we give good milk." If not, the cow starves.

Like most taxi drivers in Abu Dhabi, DB is hungry - for shorter shifts, better benefits, fewer fines and more generous compensation. Hundreds of drivers have waged more than a half-dozen strikes in recent years to oppose what they say are poor working conditions, and diminishing returns.

There is no easy answer to easing their frustrations, but experts say solutions exists. Slimming the fleet, for instance, might push more people towards public transportation and make it easier for those cabs that remain to eke out a living. Restructuring the entire business model to give driver's a degree of ownership over their cars or licenses would be more dramatic. At the very least, analysts say, higher fares could help reset the balance between market forces and fleet size.

Company officials rarely discuss their policies publicly, and government regulators did not respond to repeated requests to elaborate on drivers' concerns, making it difficult to verify individual allegations of mistreatment or neglect. But the consistency of taxi divers' concerns suggest that at the very least, regulatory action is needed to reform Abu Dhabi's taxi operations.

Many drivers will only speak on the condition of anonymity. But their frustrations are anything but anonymous. Unlike the majority of blue-collar workers in the capital - many of whom earn less and work under even more difficult circumstance - Abu Dhabi's taxi drivers are among the most visible of the emirate's workforce, interacting directly with visitors and residents.

Their safety, and the safety of those they ferry, is directly tied to the conditions they work under, and the regulations that govern their trade.

Money is at the heart of drivers' concerns. One driver told me despite legislation mandating base salaries, he still operates on commission alone. A driver for another company offered evidence his pay has been nearly halved since January 1. According to the most recent copy of his company's pay scale, if he racks up Dh9,600 in fares in any given month, his take home pay is 12 per cent of the total. Add to this a basic salary of Dh800, and his monthly take home pay today is just under Dh2,000.

This is more than a third less than what he earned under the previous pay structure. Under that scheme, drivers would have earned 34 per cent on a Dh9,600 monthly intake, or Dh3,264. Even without the new mandatory base salary, the previous set up would have meant more money in a driver's wallet.

Beyond payment concerns, independent road safety analysts point to other, potentially more dangerous shortcomings. While many companies provide accommodations to their drivers, living conditions are still stressed, with too few beds, shared bathrooms and a lack of suitable living space for the dozens crammed into tiny rooms. These cramped quarters can make it difficult for drivers to be adequately rested for long shifts behind the wheel, which in turn puts passengers at risk.

An immediate solution might be to limit the number of hours a driver can work. In Dubai, for instance, many drivers put in 12-hour shifts, where flag fall starts at Dh10. Fares, as a result, are significantly higher than fares in Abu Dhabi, where flag fall is Dh3 during the day. Drivers in the capital say they are not governed by similar restrictions to their workday.

Luis Willumsen, a London-based traffic consultant who worked on Abu Dhabi's Surface Transport Master Plan, says action is needed to address these concerns. "In a quasi-perfect world the market should take care of most (but not all) of this issue," he says. In many major markets around the world "owning a taxi and driving it to make money is one of the ways in which low income workers can become small entrepreneurs and move on to better things".

This is not the case in Abu Dhabi. As such, better regulation and monitoring are the best ways to reform the industry. It is up to officials to better control fare prices and manage the number of cars, currently around 8,000.

As Mr Willumsen sees it, the goal should be a taxi fleet that covers the market "between public transport and driving your own car", with some overlap. If public transport is not good enough then too much is being asked of the taxi system: fares must be kept low to protect low income workers and numbers are unlikely to rise to cover demand at peak periods.

Public transit plans announced for Abu Dhabi this month might eventually lessen the burden on the capital's taxi fleet. With the planned addition of a downtown rail network, dedicated bus lanes and a regional water taxi service, fewer taxis will be needed to serve a growing population.

"Taxi drivers and companies often fail to see this and consider good public transport as a menace," Mr Willumsen says. "They are wrong; they would be better off, perhaps with fewer taxis around, [and] with a good public transport system."

There is no question Abu Dhabi has made great strides transforming and regulating its taxi industry, from imposing speed controls to setting up call centres. And yet, for the small army of drivers like DB on the constant hunt for fares, these changes are needed to improve operation of a vital segment of Abu Dhabi's transportation sector.