For 15 years, Malta has benefitted from providers that offered an alternative to the white taxis, until then the only option – a monopoly that resulted in dire service, dismal cars and high rates.

The impact of the new competition was like the proverbial tide that lifts all boats. Not only was the public offered an alternative which was innovative, digitised and cheaper, it also forced white taxis – which operate from fixed points such as hotels and ports – to improve their game.

The reaction was giddy: one ride-hailing service described itself a few years ago as the “future of micromobility”.

Members of the public – whether they have their own cars or not – embraced the ability to use ride-hailing vehicles, just as they welcomed the ability to get food and groceries delivered. In reality, many more are opting to use cabs these days, cutting down on potential drink-driving accidents as well as reducing the number of cars seeking the always elusive parking spots. 

As is always the case, market liberalisation presents a new set of problems. In the past few years, we have also started seeing ubiquitous ride-hailing services showing signs of rot and resistance. 

Considering we continue to introduce more than 60 new cars on the roads every day, cabs and public transport, such as buses, are practically the only ways to curb traffic and congestion

These range from the way drivers are recruited, to the wages paid, from the conditions laid down for parking out-of-hours to the strained relationship with the ever-territorial white taxis.

There are issues of poor driving that must also be tackled. We need to fix anomalies and perceptions in the cab sector before the public begins to doubt whether the merits of their service is worth the abuse.

Because ultimately, ride-hailing cabs and food-delivery motorcycles have provided the desperately needed modal shift in transport. 

Considering we continue to introduce more than 60 new cars on the roads every day, cabs and public transport, such as buses, are practically the only ways to curb traffic and congestion. 

In the meantime, the sheer numbers of ride-hailing vehicles is clearly making the owners of the 283 white taxis uncomfortable: it was announced last week that ride-hailing cabs will no longer be able to accept rides within 250m of the white taxi stand outside the Phoenicia in Floriana. 

Malta International Airport, the Valletta cruise terminal and City Gate and the Ċirkewwa ferry terminal are among the locations earmarked for ride-hailing cabs not to be able to accept rides within 250 metres of a white taxi stand in future.

“If they chose to enforce this law, they will effectively kill the whole industry in Malta,” a Bolt spokesperson told Times of Malta.

There was good reason why this news item last week sparked a barrage of complaints from users who questioned why we are taking a regressive step towards protectionism. 

Many rightly commented that it pays to act like a bully in a country where might is right. 

The move could also cause more congestion, as drivers will start flocking to the hot spots where they can get orders. 

Do we really want to restrict cheaper cabs from operating to the airport, forcing tens of thousands of Maltese and tourists to either opt for their own private vehicles or resort to the more expensive white taxis?

Improving the service is one thing; restricting the free market and consumer choice is quite another.

We can only hope this was one of the many pre-election pledges, which are dropped once the election is in the bag.

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