A RADICAL overhaul of the Victorian taxi industry promises to deliver more taxis, better qualified and higher-paid drivers but more expensive fares at weekends and for short trips.
A year-long inquiry into Victoria's ailing taxi system by Professor Allan Fels made 145 recommendations, including a tough new Greater Melbourne Knowledge test to ensure drivers know city landmarks and suburbs.
The pain of fares on Friday and Saturday nights rising at least 20 per cent would be offset by cheaper weekday fares. As well, short trips would cost more and longer trips less, to address complaints that drivers routinely refused to pick up people for short journeys.
"The public has little confidence in the system as it stands today the industry needs to take strong medicine, to reverse the stagnation and possible decline of the industry and to set it in a new direction," Professor Fels said when releasing the report.
Taxi drivers largely endorsed the proposals as offering them a better deal, but the Victorian Taxi Association said there was already adequate competition in the industry.
Professor Fels insisted major structural reform was necessary and the proposals would put hundreds more cabs on the roads at peak times. Taxis were a critical industry, with 5258 licences in Victoria, generating revenue of between $700 million and $800 million a year.
"Victorians and visitors to the state expect our taxis to be available when and where needed by customers to arrive when booked and to be on time to be safe, reliable and affordable and to have drivers who know where they are going and are customer-friendly," he said.
The quality of drivers would be enhanced through more stringent entry and training standards.
The Greater Melbourne Knowledge exam would rigorously test drivers' knowledge of the city, the English language, safety requirements and customer service skills.
It would be challenging, but not as rigorous as the famous London Knowledge test, which takes drivers three to four years to learn and complete, he said.
The cost of getting a licence would be slashed to put more cabs on the road. Approved applicants could obtain a licence for $20,000 a year for five years in Melbourne and slightly less in country Victoria.
"Metro taxi licences have cost as much as $500,000, which leads to higher fares, higher costs for operators and lower driver payments," Professor Fels said.
But the inquiry rejected full deregulation, where licences would have been available for a small administrative fee. Professor Fels, writing in today's Age, said this would have meant the value of licences would "fall to zero".
Existing licences would continue to be bought and sold in the same way and licence holders could continue to assign their licence to a third party.
Professor Fels said the average wage of Melbourne cab drivers was about $13 an hour. The new minimum hourly rate would be several dollars higher than that, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when higher fares would kick in. Under the proposals, drivers would receive 60 per cent of fares and cab owners 40 per cent. Now, drivers receive no more than 50 per cent of fares and often less.
Hawa Add, a 60-year-old driver from North Melbourne, said "short trips are difficult because so many times we drive the cab around with no passenger inside after a short trip. And why not take a test? It's important."
Mukhtiar Tanoli, 45, a driver from Tarneit, said it was a good start. "The test of knowledge is good," he said. "A driver needs to know the landmarks and his way around.
"We might get $16 to $25 an hour under this plan on some nights. But the industry is struggling and it could lead to small and even some big operators struggling more and possibly going out of business."
The Victorian Taxi Association, representing cab owners, said it disagreed with some recommendations.
"We think there's strong competition already in the industry," said spokesman David Samuel. "The new discounted licences will devalue existing licences and I don't think the report will bring better outcomes."
But the Federation of Community Legal Centres, which has represented several taxi drivers in legal disputes, endorsed the proposals to improve working conditions for drivers and to make comprehensive insurance compulsory.
"In Victoria, taxi drivers have hardly any rights, earn little money and have almost no bargaining power in the workplace," community lawyer Lucie O'Brien said.
Most drivers were international students or recent immigrants. "They have no minimum wages, sick leave, annual leave, superannuation or rights against unfair dismissal," she said
The Victorian Council of Social Service endorsed a proposal for a more accessible taxi system, including a central booking service for wheelchair-accessible taxis.
The report will be open for six weeks of public consultation before being sent to the state government. Transport Minister Terry Mulder said: "At the end of this process we will have a better system."
20 per cent rise in fares on Friday and Saturday nights cheaper fares weekdays
Higher fares for short trips
Cheaper long-distance trips
A rise in the driver's share of fares to 60 per cent from 50 per cent or less at present
Cutting licence fees to allow greater competition
Tougher test of Melbourne knowledge for drivers
More diverse and better vehicles, including non-luxury hire cars
Removal of restriction on the number of licences held by an individual
Central booking service for the Greater Melbourne zone for wheelchair-accessible taxis
Expansion of concession fares to include people over 80 who no longer qualify for a licence
Compulsory "talking taxi meters" that can read out fares and other information for people with impaired vision
Better design standards for accessible taxis to meet the needs of people with disabilities
Improved insurance arrangements
Compulsory use of child restraints