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Thank you for taking Beijing taxi…and three ideas to make the ride better.

I’m a taxi guy.

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.

7 Comments on Thank you for taking Beijing taxi…and three ideas to make the ride better.

  1. You mean the Yizhuang, Changping, Daxing and Fangshan lines haven’t made it easier to get around?

  2. “Do I risk life and limb (or at the very least some paint and chrome) each day in my morning and afternoon commute?”

    Well, you do every time you take a taxi, cycle, or walk, and to a lesser extent when you take the bus or subway. At least in your own car, as opposed to a taxi, you’re the one in charge, and you’re not risking getting in some death trap driven by a guy who’s done 24 hours straight cranked up on crystal meth and visions of beating Michael Schumacher.

    As for Hukou restrictions for taxi drivers, I must say I dearly miss the time when all taxi drivers had grown up in the hutongs, and when told the destination, would whip down some crazy mix of streets, lanes and hutongs and get you where you wanted to go far quicker than the best route the map suggested. One of the mad side effects of all these new drivers (and not just taxi drivers) is that everybody heads for the ring roads and main thoroughfares, clogging up the roads that are supposed to make everything move faster, leaving the backstreets empty.

    So buy a small, fuel-efficient car and stick to the backstreets?

  3. I think the local government have to start implementing some kind of congestion fee for most private cars and increase gas tax to try to wean people from driving their cars.

  4. @JB – Actually, I haven’t been back there since 2007, and even that was only a short visit, so I wouldn’t know if the subway lines have made things any easier. All I can tell you is there were nights back in ’05 when I literally waited in the rain for a taxi outside the Jinling hotel for an hour and a half without being able to get one, and mornings when making the 1 1/2 mile trip from Fujian Lu to Gulou took an hour by cab.

  5. The “CBD” (I prefer to refer to it as Guandongdian) is on both sides of the 3rd ring road. Within or outside such-and-such ring road is an utterly arbitrary criterion for anything, and ignores Beijing’s actual geography.

    That’s not to say that the ring roads themselves are not part of the problem – in particular the 2nd, and large stretches of the 3rd, can ONLY be crossed at their own major junctions, thus turning them more into rings of steel. Possible alternative routes are rendered meaningless – unless (as is sometimes worthwhile) you take a taxi to one pedestrian bridge, cross, then get another one.

    Overall, this is an urban planning issue – one look at the way the city is now laid out, with huge roads everywhere chopping it into a series of “islands” and large “da yuanzi” everywhere permitting no through traffic, means that the simplest routes are generally impossible / fenced off / blocked by a huge highway going across at 90 degrees.

    One simple solution for taxis? Taxi sharing! Get four people into most taxis, instead of one. They’re capable of carrying four – why not? This is done in cities from Beirut (the “service” taxi – you can still charter the whole car of course) to London (taxi sharing schemes at major railway stations). Enforcing carpooling (as San Francisco has tried to do) is tricky, but taxi-pooling should be relatively easy – it makes taxis more available, and you can also make it financially attractive for both passengers (a bit cheaper than taking your own taxi) and drivers (paying a lot more than one sole passenger).

    Then make taxis massively more expensive to take on their own. People take them because they’re cheap, but the sheer number of them in the photo above also tells you a bit about the results.

    Of course, this doesn’t solve anything else. I suggest the introduction of some kind of urban planning – at the moment Beijing doesn’t have any.

  6. i’ve heard a joke that before you go into the subway, you are a person, but when you come out, you would just be squeezed into a photo of that person.

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