As she went off to look for an ATM and I boarded the cab, I felt embarrassed, even ashamed. How primitive a society we must seem to international travellers – particularly the well-heeled ones we say we are particularly keen to attract – and how backward compared to rival business and tourism centres in the region.

A quick online search later suggested that, of our more than 18,000 taxis, only some 600 are equipped to accept electronic payment linked to the meter which can be settled by Octopus or credit card. Other individual drivers may have installed different options. However, I remember paying my taxi fare by credit card in Singapore 10 years ago.

An article in the Post in January reported that a special meter had been developed, with support from the Innovation and Technology Fund, to facilitate electronic payment. Tested on 100 taxis in March and in use from April, the hope was that 1,000 taxis would be fitted with the device by the third quarter of the year.
The smart “CabCab” meter is demonstrated at the press conference launch, at the Hong Kong Productivity Council in Kowloon Tong, on January 31. Photo: May Tse

Wonderful. At the rate of 1,000 every six months, all taxis here should be able to accept electronic payment by 2033. So we will have caught up with Singapore after “only” 20 years.

Is there no way the process can be speeded up? I think there is. All taxis have to renew their licence annually. We could give notice that, from a future date (say, January 1, 2025), all taxis must have a device fitted which permits electronic payments before their licence is renewed.

Drivers reputedly prefer cash, so such a step would not be popular and the Transport Bureau may not be keen to stir up a hornet’s nest. But have the various tourism bodies lobbied sufficiently hard? Is it not past time to push for a conclusion? How about concurrently with the latest fare increase?

Lawyers may advise that introducing such a provision exceeds the scope of existing legislation. But it must at least be arguable in 2024 that a taxi without such equipment is not fit for purpose. If not, then it should be possible to secure passage of a short enabling bill. The administration should stand up for consumers and the economy, not submit to vested interests.

My April visit to Beijing provided a salutary lesson. While I believe it is still possible to pay a taxi fare in cash, I never saw anyone do so, and you can certainly pay electronically, usually with Alipay or WeChat Pay on your phone. But the case is largely academic – every taxi ride my family took that week was via the Didi Chuxing ride-hailing app.
The Didi Chuxing app has become ubiquitous on the mainland. Photo: Bloomberg

After putting in your requirements on the app, within seconds you are notified of the arrival time, vehicle registration number, and cost of the journey. If you agree to the terms, you pay the fare automatically. And you need to be quick, too: if you book the car from premises on a high floor, you had better call the lift immediately as, by the time you get to street level, your ride will probably be pulling up.

The equivalent ride-hailing service is of course available in Hong Kong, too – it’s called Uber, and many people have that app on their phone (I am one of them).
But instead of promoting its use as a way to improve service quality, including driver behaviour and standards, the authorities harass the company and attempt to devise penalty schemes and other methods to secure improvements from taxi drivers. Who remembers the “luxury taxi” proposal a few years ago? Or the new bad-conduct points system? Why are we insisting on reinventing the wheel?
There are other things we can do to brush up our appeal to big-spending visitors as well. Head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Xia Baolong recently urged Hong Kong to apply more creative energy. I agree.
In the interim, we should stop describing every routine activity as a “mega” event – it is an abuse of the vocabulary and devalues the term. A large balloon in the shape of a heart is a bit of fun, not a mega event, likewise a bunch of egg-shaped objects in different colours. Nobody will book an airline ticket and make a special trip just to see them.
We should save the term for real needle movers like the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament, the Liv Golf tour, the International Council for Commercial Arbitration (ICCA) Congress, or the Global Prosperity Summit, which was headlined by a Nobel laureate. These made a difference and were truly worthy of the term “mega”.

Mike Rowse is an independent commentator