Transportation is, once again, big news in Chiang Mai, following the release of a clip last week showing a Grab Car driver arriving to pick up a client at the Land Transportation Department and being detained and fined 2,000 baht by authorities. Initially local reporters said that the vehicle was an Uber, but it has since emerged that it was a Grab Car. Over the next few days, however, a further five vehicles – Ubers and Grab Cars – were caught in sting operations thought to have been conducted by the Land Transport Department, each fined 2,000 baht for operating illegally.
However, on March 2nd, the Director of the Land Transport Department Charnchai Keelapang announced that it was the songtaew and taxi drivers of Chiang Mai who had organised the sting. He went on to say that since the sting had caught these rideshare vehicles operating without a license, officials had to follow the law and fine the drivers 2,000 baht for offering a service without being registered as a legal commercial vehicle.
The nearly four decades old Thailand’s Motor Vehicle Act of 1979 supports private and commercial vehicles, but not ridesharing, a relatively new concept of transportation which falls somewhere between the two, thus making it unregulated. Herein lies the issue; while Uber and the Singapore-based Grab Car are currently unregulated and operating in a legal vacuum, Uber also says that they have been working to lobby the government to update existing laws to regulate themselves.
“There is a clear need for Uber,” Amy Kunrojpanya, Uber’s Director of Policy and Communications, Asia Pacific, told Citylife in December 2016. “We are here to complement, not to compete…There is always nervousness about change, but by creating alternatives we open opportunities for other alternatives. There are more people in the world and there needs to be fewer cars, so Uber offers that solution for shared rides, gives opportunities for car-owners to generate extra income and is a safe and easy alternative to more traditional transportation. There are no provisions in the law that covers ride-share. We are not illegal, but we are in an unregulated space and we need to work with the government to recognise this new technology because it is here to stay. The on-demand or entrepreneurial economy allows freedom from traditional employment structure and countries like Malaysia and Singapore already have progressive regulations to make sure that they are legally recognised. If you want to serve everyone and be everywhere then you have to be part of the solution. We are offering a solution here and hope to work with the government to recognise what we are doing.”
The meteoric rise of Uber worldwide has been mired in controversy. Touted as the future of transportation, it has also consistently been in the news over various issues ranging from its intent to one day replace human drivers with AI to accusations of labour exploitation.
Chiang Mai has also had a long history of controversy over its transportation. For a city of over half a million in its greater area, it should have a functioning public transportation system. But due to lack of budget from the central government, as well as resistance from local transport companies, this has never happened. Instead, over the years there have been numerous clashes between the powerful Nakorn Lanna Cooperative and various new forms of transportation which have arrived over the years: firstly tuk tuks, taxis, then motorbike taxis and now rideshares. When Citylife interviewed them in late 2015 in the article Mess Transit, the coop had a membership of 2,465 songtaews, 328 taxis and 50 minibuses.
However, the condemnation of the sting operation was swift, with a Chang.org petition having generated over 8,000 signatures over the past four days in support of the two rideshare companies. The campaign stated, “Is the red songtaew necessary for Chiang Mai? They have been an ongoing problem for a long time; driving badly, cutting in front of other vehicles, loud, kicking passengers out half way through the journey, bad service and polluted. The Land Transportation Department has never been able to solve these issues. Now that we have a better option in Uber or Grab Taxi, safe, fast, pollution-free, [they] are just protesting against their competition without improving themselves.”
Comments on social media have also condemned local taxi companies, saying that they never use their metres, charge exorbitant prices and are rarely available.
Uber and Grab Car, on the other hand, are services which use an online application to connect private drivers and paying customers. Journeys are tracked by GPS, drivers and customers are rated and recorded for accountability, prices are relatively low and pre-determined, and ride shares have been credited with reducing drink driving, offering part time work opportunities as well as being a safe means of transport. Detractors, however, warn that they will cause great damage to local transportation businesses, and of course, point to the fact that they are illegal/unregulated.
Director Charnchai clarified matters further to the media, saying that it was in fact that Grab Taxi drivers who had organised the sting against Grab Car, in protest of their competition and that the department, once a complaint was made, had to follow through. So far, he said, 100 rideshare drivers had been issues with letters to cease and desist and if they refused their licenses could be revoked.
“It was the drivers themselves who organised this,” said Grit Sripaurya of Jed Yod Brothers, Grab Taxi Chiang Mai’s franchise owner, who says that he bought the franchise from Singapore’s Grab Car. “My taxis are all perfectly legal, in total there are 416 legal taxis in Chiang Mai [including those in the Nakorn Lanna Coop]. We invest in quality vehicles, as well as in our efficient application, we do regular training, we pay twice-annual taxes and we are a legitimate company. Grab Car corporate came in recently and started to introduce rideshares, taking many clients away from our taxis, hence the protest.”
Grit went on to say that the 416 legal taxis in Chiang Mai averaged around 4,000 rides per day, but that the rideshare businesses were a problem. “After the sting, we sat down with Grab Car, they have agreed to be fair with market share and have offered taxis incentives. So we are OK with them. Now we are all looking at Uber and how to make sure we support local businesses.” Grab Taxi, he went on to say, is a legal form of taxi which offers the same levels of convenience and safety as rideshares.
Director Charnchai said that he had had numerous conversations with both the government and the rideshare applications, but insists that rideshares are not in accordance with the law and urges the people of Chiang Mai to not use such services, instead asking them to use registered taxi services and other forms of transportation because such services do not fall within the Land Transportation laws.
A spokesperson from Uber responded to Citylife’s questions with the following statement, “Uber remains committed to creating reliable transportation for everyone. We will continue to engage with relevant authorities in order for the benefits of ridesharing to be recognised in Thailand.”