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New taxi service launches in Ghent, Leuven and Antwerp

This weekend sees the launch of the French-owned taxi service Heetch in Ghent, Antwerp and Leuven. The service is already active in Brussels.

Heetch (the name refers to ‘hitch,’ as in hitch-hike, but with a French accent) offers a service almost identical to Uber: order via an app, pay online, driver in independent rather than employee, driving their own car.

But whereas Uber had to carve out its own trail against much opposition, Heetch slips in where the path has already been well-trodden. In Ghent, where Heetch becomes active on Monday, the city authorities said they have simply had notification the service will start, but no attempt at discussion.

There’s no need for that,” Maxime Vander Stichele, CEO of Heetch Belgium, told the VRT. “We consulted at the Flemish level, which drew up the taxi decree. But we are open to consultation with the local players if they wish.”

Heetch, like Uber, denies it is competition for classic taxi service, unfair because unregulated.

Actually we are just complementary,” he said.

We cover Ghent and the surrounding municipalities, and our customers are mainly people who are used to arranging all kinds of things with their smartphone: young and local people. The taxi companies mainly rely on people who are regular customers, and go to a taxi rank or stop a taxi.”

The company is basing its roll-out to Flanders on two things: a successful trial run in Brussels, and a new taxi decree covering Flanders, which allows entry to the new services initially seen as unfair competition to the classic taxi-rank based services.

The newcomers, led by Uber, were opposed by the authorities because of their corporate structure, by which drivers are seen as not being employees of the company, but independent contractors responsible for their own tax and social security responsibilities.

On the other hand, the general public opened its arms wide to the newcomers. Traditional taxis were expensive, unresponsive and far from customer friendly.

Above all, the were offline: why call up a phone number and then wait in hope for the taxi to arrive when you could carry out the whole transaction online and even see on a map where the taxi was on its way to you?

In its expansion into Flanders, Heetch has offered its new drivers a three-month amnesty on the 15% it usually takes from the cost of every trip. The company hopes in that way to poach drivers away from Uber and other competitors. The move makes no difference to passengers, but the service can only be successful if there are enough Heetch cars on the road for the expected demand.

And even the current lockdown, with the closure of restaurants and all manner of entertainment such as cinemas and concerts, is seen as an opportunity.

Now that things are so calm, we can analyse everything in peace, in order to fine-tune our service by the time the lockdown is over,” Vander Stichele said.

Alan Hope
The Brussels Times