Uber Hong Kong driver numbers surge during Covid-19 crisis, as demand rises for trips, deliveries

Hard-up residents turn to the service, looking to cash in on demand for trips increasing by nearly a third among app users. Number of Uber Eats drivers doubled during Hong Kong’s second wave of infections, which forced tough social-distancing curbs on the city. — SCMP

The number of Uber food-delivery drivers operating in Hong Kong doubled during the Covid-19 crisis, the firm revealed on Sept 17, as more cash-strapped residents turned to the ride-hailing app to make money.

A 40% increase of Uber Hong Kong drivers taking passengers also fuelled a surge in sign-ups since the coronavirus emerged locally in January, said the US-based company, which now has 14,000 active drivers in the city.

Uber lost a critical Hong Kong court battle on the legality of its business model earlier this month – a devastating blow for the firm, which has provided millions of trips and deliveries since arriving in 2014.

During the city’s second wave of coronavirus infections, the number of Uber ride-sharing drivers and those delivering shot up by more than 40% and 100% respectively in March, compared with the previous month.

For Uber Taxi, which connects users with licensed drivers, there has been a 78% increase in the number of ride-sharing drivers signing up since January. Increases in the quantity of Uber Taxi trips of 87% and 37% were also recorded month on month in February and March respectively.

Despite the sharp drop in demand for transport generally because of Covid-19 restrictions, app users on average took 30% more trips during the health crisis.

Tips for drivers also accumulated to more than HK$3mil (RM1.60mil) across its rides and delivery services since their introduction this year.

The firm also marked a strong growth in ride-hailing services during some public holidays, with business on Mother’s Day on May 10, Dragon Boat Festival on June 25 and Father’s Day on June 21 going up by anywhere between 13% and 31% compared with last year.

At the start of the month, the Court of Final Appeal threw out last-ditch challenges from 24 Uber drivers found guilty of carrying passengers for hire or reward without a hire-car permit. They were fined between HK$3,000 (RM1,601) and HK$4,500 (RM2,402) in 2018.

Despite operating in the city for six years, the drivers are working illegally by taking passengers without permission to do so. The enterprise has encountered strong resistance from the taxi industry, which has 18,163 licensed cabs.

Uber has provided millions of trips since arriving in the city six years ago but its future here is shrouded in uncertainty because of licensing issues. Photo: Felix Wong

However, the final court ruling does not seem to have deterred Uber drivers and those wanting to sign up.

A new survey of about 3,000 of them showed the most common reason for registering was to make up for lost income during the pandemic, a factor cited by 28% of respondents.

That was closely followed by 24% saying they needed to cover ongoing family expenses.

The poll found that 92% of drivers with other sources of income said they had been negatively affected by the pandemic, and desperately needed to earn extra money amid the economic uncertainty, drawing on the platform’s flexibility.

Estyn Chung, general manager of Uber Hong Kong, called for the government to engage in constructive dialogue to devise a regulatory regime for the ride-sharing business in Hong Kong, saying the company had played an important role in easing residents’ financial hardship.

“The pandemic reminded us of the important role Uber plays in Hong Kong, especially as the platform helps Hongkongers earn flexibly during challenging times and travel safely from point to point,” he said.

“However, to unlock more opportunities here, regulation is key. It’s now time for the government to address what the future of transport looks like for Hong Kong.”

Despite the company’s appeal, officials have stood firm in cracking down on the service, with penalty increases proposed for drivers caught providing illegal rides.

Ng Kwan-sing, vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Taxi Council, said he had noticed an increasing number of licensed drivers joining the Uber Taxi service.

“The taxi business has really taken a nosedive this year so many of them have joined Uber hoping to earn some income on the side,” he said.

But Ng expected those drivers to quit the ride-hailing app once the pandemic was over, adding: “After all, Uber’s rides are illegal.

“For running a legitimate business in Hong Kong, Uber needs to apply for a hire-car permit for every private vehicle which provides service otherwise it is very unfair to those lawful drivers in Hong Kong.” – South China Morning Post

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