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(Yonhap Feature) Seoul taxis transforming, but still have long way to go

All Headlines 10:32 July 08, 2009

By Shin Hae-in

SEOUL, July 8 (Yonhap) -- A self-professed "Seoul addict," Japanese housewife Mariko Yoshinaga loves everything about the South Korean capital, from its busy shopping districts and jovial people to the distinctive scent of its streets.

One thing she cannot stand, however, is the city's taxi service, which she bitterly calls a "rip-off."

"I naively grabbed a cab from the airport when I first came to Korea in 2001. The taxi driver charged me 100,000 won (about US$78) for a distance that would normally cost less than 20,000 won," the 35-year-old said. "I would never take a taxi in Seoul now, unless I'm with a local."

Taxi drivers overcharging or refusing passengers traveling short distances have long been considered issues plaguing Korea's image, with some 69 percent of tourists expressing dissatisfaction with the service, according to a recent survey by the Korea Tourism Organization.

Even locals are not exempt.

"Last week, I waited on the street for nearly an hour after midnight to get a taxi," said office worker Kim Jung-hoon. "And that wasn't the first time, either."

Cab drivers usually look to go farther distances -- preferably out of Seoul -- late at night to earn more fare. Kim said he always has a hard time catching one to his home in Yeongdeungpo, western Seoul, when he works the night shift.

"In the end, I paid the driver 10,000 won extra to go home. Everything about the country has been advancing, but taxis haven't changed one bit," Kim said.

So, are Seoul taxis really that bad?

South Korea's taxi service is considered inexpensive by international standards and is a quick way of getting around. Among the average 5 million people who visit Seoul each year, some 1.3 million travel by taxis, according to recent city data.

Fare starts from 2,400 won, or about $2 -- slightly less than the $2.50 paid in New York City -- and goes up by meter or time, making it cost-effective especially if one is traveling in a group or with family.

Compared with a decade ago, the country's taxi service has improved remarkably, with taxi violations decreasing by nearly 60 percent from 2000, according to the Seoul City Traffic Violation Department.

Striving to diversify and enhance its taxi service, the Seoul Metropolitan Government introduced in May specialized cabs for foreigners and disabled people, and plans to expand such services more than two-fold by year's end.

Operating on a 24 hour-reservation system, Seoul currently has about 120 "international taxis" with 240 drivers, who have been selected through English and Japanese speaking tests. The extra convenience comes at a cost, however. International taxis charge a 20 percent surcharge on top of the normal metered fare.

Hoping to help out drivers suffering from a dwindling number of passengers amid the economic downturn, while also improving the overall quality of the service, Seoul also raised the base fare for all taxis by 500 won last month.

"We still have a long way to go, though," said Park Yong-hoon, head of the Coalition for Transportation Culture. "Despite our efforts, illegal overcharging continues and many people complain about the hostility of drivers, poor English skills and aggressive driving."

"This is a pity because taxis can actually be a very good cultural source," he added. "Many visitors form their first impression of the country in a taxi and learn about the country by talking to the driver."

For just such reasons, other cities around the world have long been striving to improve their taxi services and train drivers at the national level -- something Seoul has lagged behind on.

"I say blame the system, not the driver," said a driver employed by one of the largest taxi firms in Seoul. "I work 18 hours a day and rarely have time for proper meals, but still live hand to mouth."

Unlike deluxe cab drivers or self-employed drivers, company taxi drivers have to give a certain percentage of their fare to the company. After shelling out the quota, they often go home with less than 70,000 won a day.

With the weakened local currency and the ongoing economic downturn raising commodity prices and education expenses for their kids, drivers are often left with very little to live on.

"With so many taxis and so few customers, we often have to wait hours in line to pick up passengers," the driver said. "I'd like to live by the rules and be a good man, but frankly, that is not as easy as it sounds."

The core of the problem for Seoul taxis, observers say, is the fact that there are just "too many" cabs and not enough passengers to go round.

According to a recent survey by Dr. Kang Sang-wook of the Korea Transport Institute, Seoul has been suffering from an oversupply of taxis since 2002, with more than 72,000 cabs considered "unnecessary." Only 6.5 percent of the city's population uses taxis on a regular basis, the survey also showed, compared to about 20 percent in other parts of the country where mass transit is not as developed.

Taxis in Seoul increased by an overwhelming number after the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics. The city stopped issuing new licenses in 2004 in an attempt to reduce their numbers, but with retiring taxi drivers sometimes illegally selling their licenses the measures have proved ineffective.

Lacking proper regulations, the number of taxi-related crimes -- mainly against vulnerable female passengers -- has been on the rise annually, another reason for the decrease in use.

According to a poll taken by a local broadcaster earlier this year, many drivers employed by taxi firms are ex-convicts working under fake IDs.

"The new measures are useless without first solving the issue of oversupply of taxis and drivers," said Park of the Coalition for Transportation Culture. "There is a need to take lessons from other countries."

Japan's MK Taxis are famous for their polite drivers and reliability. Some Japanese even joke that calling an MK cab is better than an ambulance in case of emergency.

MK Taxi distributes up to 83 percent of the firm's overall monthly profit to drivers, with the management taking the remaining 17 percent. The firm operates on an incentive system under which drivers can earn larger amounts of money according to the contributions they make.

More than 70 percent of MK Taxi drivers are college graduates and up to 80 percent own their own home, the firm says.

Advanced countries in Europe also strive to control the number of taxis through strict qualification standards in issuing taxi licenses. In Paris, drivers must take language and geography tests to operate a taxi and receive training from the city government on history, culture and manners.

"I think the main problem is that Korean taxi drivers don't feel a sense of pride or responsibility in their jobs," said Kim Seung-joon, a researcher at the Seoul Development Institute. "Communicating with men and women from different countries, generations and social classes can be joyful work. We need to revamp the system so that drivers can first change how they think about their jobs."


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