In key coastal centres such as Bundaberg and Mackay, hundreds of e-scooters are hitting the streets at the hands of eager locals keen to trial the new mode of transport.
Apart from the novelty factor that’s stirring interest, the two-wheel vehicles are filling a very real and practical need to move people short distances across their urban scapes, a journey once filled by taxis and, in some cases, Uber.
Local government areas such as Townsville, Noosa, Gold Coast, Douglas, Fraser Coast, Moreton Bay, Rockhampton and Logan have rolled out the e-scooter program, provided by various private suppliers.
As Bundaberg and Mackay, along with other regional centres have found since the pandemic, available cars have dried up, forcing local administrators to look at their options, including the contracting of private shuttle buses to assist with larger events.
Mackay Regional Council Mayor Greg Williamson is unsure of how many taxis and rideshare cars his community may be short, but the deficit is prompting an urgent meeting with the head of the region’s biggest cab company next week to plot further contingencies at the prospect of little improvement soon.
Williamson said councils should not be involved in providing services capable of being delivered by private operators, but is determined to avoid further instances of people stranded at late night venues, airports and shopping centres.
Bundaberg’s Steve Cooper, who also sits on the local council, said problems with driver shortages had been brewing for years, but have deteriorated significantly since the pandemic caused demand to plummet and current strain on available labour has hampered the recovery.
He concedes the scooter option will only fill a small gap in the market, mainly short-hop commuters around town. He suspects older folk, people with disabilities and long-distance travellers won’t find them a viable option.
“Let’s face it, it’s a bit hard to juggle a large suitcase while riding a scooter from the airport into town,” he said.
Taxi Council of Queensland CEO Blair Davies estimates the state is currently missing 10 per cent of a total fleet of about 3500 cars.
He blames the shortage on the pandemic, which forced cars off the road due to suppressed demand and sent many overseas drivers back to their home countries, from where most are yet to return.
Based on taxi industry data, the average wait time for both any taxi and for a wheelchair accessible taxi in the 2020-21 financial year ranged between four and 15 minutes for the larger taxi companies in Queensland.
KAP Leader and Member for Traeger, Robbie Katter, said it was convenient to blame Covid, when the pandemic had exposed already existing structural problems, leading to an industry that had “crumbled to a shameful state”.
“When ridesharing was legalised in 2016, it was meant to encourage competition and innovation, but today, we’re worse off than we started,” he wrote in an opinion piece this week.
“The uneven playing field sparked by rideshare, combined with Covid-induced driver shortages and skyrocketing fuel prices, have brought the industry to its knees.”
Katter said while passengers were faced with an unreliable service and erratic wait times, for people with disabilities the situation was even worse.
“As rideshare doesn’t accommodate wheelchairs, vulnerable passengers are forced to rely on the 20 per cent of the state’s taxis equipped with wheelchair access, which have been experiencing major delays and even failures to show,” Katter said.
“It’s deplorable and completely unacceptable that Queenslanders with disabilities are missing potentially life-saving appointments because they can’t get a ride.”
Davies said Katter was “half-right” in his assessment, insisting the pandemic was at fault for most of the industry’s current woes.
He said margins for taxi drivers were improving, which would only be strengthened by continuing strong demand.
He said the State Government’s 5.5 per cent fare rise to take effect from July 1, the first since 2014, and lowered rates for compulsory third party insurance would also bolster returns.
“I’m confident we will see more taxis back on the road as the drivers return,” he said.
Katter said he was not convinced taxi drivers and the wider industry had a rosy outlook, with Queensland passengers, especially the most vulnerable, still paying for the unequal price playing field that had been left untouched since 2016 when rideshare operations were legalised.
He said the government’s “laissez-faire” approach, had partly led to this week’s agreement between Uber and the Transport Workers Union to back a minimum earnings safety net and the creation of an independent body to set industry-wide standards and a mechanism to resolve disputes.
InQueensland understands the state government has no plans to implement an independent body to manage fares regulation, a position at odds with the TWU agenda.
Katter said it was ironic that after the pain and disruption of the last six years, the industry looked like it would return to “old style regulation”, but with rideshare operators having the upper-hand in the market.
In Uber’s first five years, taxi trips in Queensland plummeted by 60 per cent, he said, a position from which taxi drivers have never recovered.
“Taxi drivers, many of which are Mum-and-Dad small business owners, have kept their fares unchanged through regulated pricing, continue to adhere to safety standards and service levels including mandated security cameras, disability access, and trying to keep taxis on the road 24/7, all the while working 14-hour days, seven days a week, and still making less than their pre-Uber income,” he said.
“Rideshare drivers shoulder none of these responsibilities. They pick only the low-hanging fruit; they can flood the market on busy nights and price surge when taxis cannot.”
Katter is also reiterating calls for legislation to create a non-politicised body that would enforce fare regulations, and for Queensland Transport Minister Mark Bailey to negotiate a fair compensation package for taxi licence-holders, which he said had so far been rejected.
“Late last year, the High Court ruled mediation between taxi licence-holders and the State Government, but it’s not looking good; taxi drivers are being forced to negotiate from a very poor position,” he said.
“Now, the circle is starting again, with pressure from rideshare drivers to protect their wages, which would essentially spell the rebirth of the old taxi industry.”
Bailey has told InQueensland he is aware of an increase in wait times for taxi services in some areas due largely to driver shortages exacerbated by the pandemic, prompting discussions with customers and industry stakeholders to improve service levels.
He said the state government made $100 million available to the taxi sector in 2017 to assist the transition to the new market settings, with a further $25 million provided to support the industry during the worst of the pandemic.
“In December 2019, the state government also opened the four-year, $21 million Wheelchair Accessible Taxi Grant Scheme to support taxi operators in acquiring new WATs by funding half the cost of a vehicle up to a maximum of $45,000,” he said.
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