There is the Metro. Fast. Modern. Immune to the gridlock just a few meters above. And totally packed out. At rush hour lines 1 and 2 resemble the alimentary canals of giant man-eating tube worms after an all-you-can-eat human parts buffet. Last week I had to tell the dude standing behind me that if he got any closer, he’d have to buy me a drink first.
The Beijing bus system is convenient and you’re never more than 50 meters from a stop, but they can be a tad unreliable. Twice in the past month I’ve had the driver of the Number 8 bus simply stop on the North Third Ring and announce he wasn’t going any further. I have no idea why but I’m guessing the riotous mob my fellow commuters formed ultimately beat the reason out of him. Good times!
There’s always bicycle I suppose. But as a larger-sized mammal, I’ve found that my riding bikes to be far too amusing for passers-by than is perhaps good for my self-esteem or the general social harmony.
A colleagues suggested I buy a car, but with the streets clogged worse than a hutong sewer, the Beijing Municipal Government has just issued a draft report proposing new measures to ease the city’s traffic nightmare. Of course, the possibility of these new restrictions or new fees being imposed beginning next year set off a mini car buying frenzy. According to Xinhua, between November 29 and December 5 nearly 21,000 new cars were sold in Beijing, an average of 3000 new automobiles hitting the pavement per day as the highways jammed with Beijing heroes out for a last-chance auto buy.
And I’m supposed to join this race? Even if I did get a car, would I really want to run the demolition derby that is Beijing’s roadways at rush hour? Seriously. 3000 new cars per day sounds like an awful lot of new drivers per day as well. Factor in the (how shall I put this?) casual relationship most Beijing drivers have with notions of traffic safety and I’m forced to ask: Do I risk life and limb (or at the very least some paint and chrome) each day in my morning and afternoon commute?
Then there are the taxis.
First of all, in Beijing you really have to pay attention and be sure that the driver does, in fact, know how to get from, for example, the Second to the Third Ring Road…or even knows that Beijing has a Second and a Third Ring Road. Anyone who has taken more than a few cabs here has been staggered by the navigational ineptitude of some of Beijing’s “taxi brothers.” I’ve lived here for eight years, my Chinese is pretty good, and it needs to be because at least once a week I’m riding with some poor fellow just in from Huairou or Miyun, and suddenly it’s my job to help him navigate Beijing’s highways and hutong to get to where I’m going.
Of course, the poor drivers are always more worried about the possibility of mandated English tests. I tell them that having taken cabs in Miami, English is a highly overrated skill in a driver, but a good sense of direction and a general knowledge of the city layout really need to be part of the equation.
There’s also the issue of actually getting a cab, which my friends who work in the CBD tell me on rainy/cold/windy days and rush hour becomes something of a blood sport.
Here’s how I might fix some of these problems, a three-part plan if you will.
1) Rush hour premium pricing within the Third Ring Road. From 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. and again from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. taxis will add a 5 yuan surcharge for all pick-ups within the Third Ring. Drivers right now are leery about heading downtown at rush hour because they worry about the traffic morass limiting the number of pick-ups they can make, which means that the cabs disappear from the CBD just when they’re needed the most.
2) Remove the hukou restriction for Beijing taxi drivers. The usual argument is that people from other places won’t know the city. Well, I can tell you that the current crop of drivers – Beijingers all in name, even if they grew up miles from the city center – are pretty clueless about how to get around. Give me some kid with a Hebei hukou and a map over some dude from Daxing who needs turn-by-turn directions just to find his own…elbow.
3) At the same time, however, raise the standards for becoming cab driver by requiring an extensive test of the city’s geography like they do in London. Make it tough. Hope people don’t cheat. Forget about teaching the cabbies English, just have them learn how to find an address. I don’t think visitors to our fair city expect the taxi drivers to be fluent in English, but they do expect that when the drivers are handed an address – in Chinese – they would know how to find it.
Taxis are important. A visitor’s first impression of a city is usually a cab. Now this won’t solve all the city’s taxi woes (There’s also the whimsical trend of cabbies getting selective in who they pick up and where they’ll actually go, and forget about getting at taxi in inclement weather) but with the right set of incentives – and a little outside competition – cab service in Beijing will be even better in the future.
Note: An earlier form of this essay appeared in the Global Times English Edition last month.