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Why it's so hard to catch taxi at night

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By Lee Hyo-jin

Last Saturday night, a Seoul resident surnamed Lee, 29, called for a taxi through a mobile app, to get home after an evening gathering with her friends in Itaewon. But no taxis were available.

"My friends and I were on the street for over an hour trying to catch a taxi. It was a nightmare. We downloaded several apps to call at least one cab and share the ride, but we all failed," she said.

In the end, she had to call her father in the middle of the night to pick her up.

Kim Seo-yeon, an office worker in her 20s in Gangnam District of Seoul, recently had to request a "Kakao Taxi Black," a premium type of taxi offered by Kakao's ride-hailing app, on a Friday night. She was charged more than double the regular fare.

"I spent about an hour trying to call a regular taxi, but I received no response from any drivers. I had no choice but to request a premium taxi. Now I'll make sure to get home within public transportation's operating hours."

Similar frustrations have been felt by many other residents in Seoul and its surrounding areas recently.

As life is getting back to normal under the eased social distancing measures, with the limitations on the operating hours of restaurants and bars having been lifted since Nov. 1, many people have been struggling to grab a cab at nightlife spots such as Gangnam, Jongno, Hongdae or Itaewon, where demand far outstrips supply.

According to Seoul City, during the first week of November, the average number of taxi users during nighttime peak hours ― between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. ― stood at 28,972, a 75-percent surge compared with 16,510 in the first week of October.

However, the number of taxis has fallen compared to pre-pandemic levels.

The number of taxi drivers across the country stood at 241,721 as of September this year, down 25,468, or 9.5 percent, from December 2019, according to data from the Korea National Joint Conference of Taxi Association.

The decrease came mostly from corporation-owned taxi drivers. The number of such drivers was 77,012 as of September of this year, down 24 percent from 102,320 two years ago.

Vehicles using the cab-hailing platform, KakaoT, are parked in a parking lot in Seoul, Sept. 14. Yonhap
Vehicles using the cab-hailing platform, KakaoT, are parked in a parking lot in Seoul, Sept. 14. Yonhap

"As ridership plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic, many taxi drivers have left for other sectors like delivery. And they are not choosing to return," Yoo Jeong-whon, a professor of the Department of Transportation Systems Engineering at Ajou University, told The Korea Times.

"Privately owned taxi drivers, who account for about two-thirds of the total drivers, prefer to work only during the daytime, resulting in cab shortages at nighttime," Yoo explained.

An official from the taxi association said, "Many drivers have left the taxi industry due to decreased income during the COVID-19 pandemic. The drop in drivers, along with the surge in passengers in line with the 'Living with COVID-19' scheme, seems to have resulted in passengers having difficulties in being able to use taxis, especially at nighttime."

Against this backdrop, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has temporarily lifted the three-day rotation restrictions on privately owned taxis from Nov. 16, allowing them to work without having to take a day off every three days.

But such measures will do little to solve the current taxi shortage, Yoo said, adding that it may worsen toward the year-end due to increased gatherings.

"The city governments should come up with better measures, such as increasing nighttime buses that run from crowded areas in Seoul to residential areas in Gyeonggi Province. It could also consider temporarily allowing ride-hailing services using mini vans," he said.

He also pointed out that the transportation authorities should be more open to new service providers in order to solve the chronic imbalance of supply and demand in the taxi industry.

"In other countries, customers are offered several options other than conventional taxis, such as Uber and Grab. But the Korean government has been excessively regulating innovative car-sharing services from entering the industry."


Lee Hyo-jin lhj@koreatimes.co.kr


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