Long gone are the days of my youth in Beijing when yellow hoards of 面包车 (miànbāochē，bread-shaped minivans) swarmed around the city like locusts eager to swoop up passengers. Nowadays, most of the time, when I’m trying to hail a taxi in Beijing, a mini audition of sorts occurs. Most drivers with the 空车 (kōngchē, empty cab) sign on now have that thousand yard-stare and ignore all pedestrians entirely (including those in front of them), but for those who are entertaining the thought of possibly picking up a passengers, something really annoying happens. They slow down almost to the point of stopping to take a quick look at you and decide whether or not they deem you worthy of gracing their presence in the cab. If they don’t like what they see, they will quickly floor the accelerator and speed off in search of more suitable prey. Based on years of humiliating denials, I’ve created a list of common reasons why cabbies blow off would-be customers.
Audition Point Deductions
- Being a foreigner.
- Being old.
- Being disabled.
- Having a child.
- Being in a group of 4 or more.
- Carrying luggage.
- Having a child with a stroller.
- Hailing a cab in the opposite direction that you are planning on going.
- Hailing a cab in the opposite direction that the taxi driver lives.
- Trying to go a distance that is too short.
- Trying to go a distance that is too long.
- Trying to take a taxi during a two hour radius of the sacred 4pm shift change (交班儿, jiāobānr).
The reason taxi drivers are so surly is because, each month, the taxi drivers must pay 9,500 yuan in vehicle rental and management fees to their taxi company, so each day they need to earn 316 and that breaks down to 40 yuan per hour. However, due to the high cost of fuel and the low rate per mile of the fares (10 RMB for the first 3 kilometers and 2 RMB for each subsequent kilometer), it is cost prohibitive to carry customers during rush hour. If they take people during rush hour, the amount of fuel they burn sitting in traffic with a customer will cost them more than what they earn from the fare. This results in ridiculous scenes at the height of rush hour of secluded lots with taxis lined up as far as the eye can see with the drivers sleeping in their cars. Theoretically, refusing passengers is against the law, and in both Beijing and Shanghai there are hotlines to report taxi drivers that refuse passengers, something mentioned in our blog Terrific Taxi Tales. However, I have yet to hear of this threat having any effect. They conveniently fear laws if they can be used as an excuse to not take you somewhere, like “taxis can’t stop here”, “only four passengers allowed”, and “that road is only one-way during certain hours”, etc. and ad infinitum, despite the fact that all drivers in Beijing – taxi drivers included – ignore any semblance of traffic laws.
Calling the phone numbers for most of the taxi companies never works unless you are going a long distance such as the airport, otherwise, they will say that there are no cars available and endlessly put you on hold. Instead, get the phone number of a driver that you’ve already ridden with that seems nice and responsible. You can try calling them a day in advance for longer trips that you want to take, just be aware that you might have to go through a few flaky drivers until you finally find a reliable one.
There are certain locations in the city such as the major train stations where most of the cabs are illegal heiche (黑车, black cabs) because there is such a high number people in need of taxis and there are never enough to go around. The black cabs will charge rates many times higher than the standard rate. A simple 10 RMB ride, suddenly becomes 50 RMB or higher. Many licensed cabs will take advantage of the situation and refuse to take passengers unless they go off the meter and charge an exorbitant rate as well. There will also be little jerry-built three-wheeled tin cans called bengbengr (蹦蹦儿) laying in wait for you. They will often try to charge the unwitting foreigner 30 RMB, but not only are they too expensive for the short distances they are capable of, they are death traps on wheels. They are not designed to take an impact from an actual automobile and are the source of many injuries from even minor collisions.
Since the 1990s, the number of taxis in Beijing has remained unchanged at 68,000 taxis for the entire city. Yet during the same time, the population has nearly doubled from 12 million to 20 million and the number of cars on the road has increased to 5 million. The policy of requiring taxi driver to register with taxi companies and pay month vehicle rental and management fees started in the 1990s as an attempt to regulate the market, but the result is a small number of companies holding a monopoly in the city, and many other Chinese cities for that matter. Until there is a relaxation on the issuance of taxi licenses to increase the number of taxis on the road and stimulate competition, this situation is only going to get worse. So for the time being, here is a list of some tricks of the trade.
Tips to Pass Your Audition
Refer to the driver as 师傅 (shīfu, master) to butter him up.
Foreigners should hide while a Chinese friend hails the cab.
Hide children and strollers.
Hide your luggage.
Only hail taxis in the direction you’re sure to go.
If there are two or more of you, have each of you stand on opposite sides of the street.
Sit down inside the taxi as soon as possible and close the door.
Have the name of your destination in large print in Chinese.
Call a taxi driver that you’ve already gotten the phone number of.
Western hotels are one of the better places to find readily available taxis.
Approach a taxi outside a local restaurant. Fed taxi drivers are happy taxi drivers.
Don’t stand on the highway or busy streets where its impossible for the driver to stop. Stand by connecting side streets and the corners.
Rain, snow, public holidays, are all a no-go, especially if it involves the 3rd Ring Road which is jammed completely in the rain.
Get your game face on! Don’t think that because you got there first you will get the taxi before the person next to you.
Ultimately, there is a high probability that despite all of the advice I have given, you still won’t be able to get a taxi. You should consider alternate forms of transportation such as the new subway lines that have opened up and Beijing’s extensive bus network. If you search the desired address in Baidu maps, you have the option of selecting the 公交 (public transportation) tab directly beneath the address of your point of origin and destination. With over 800 routes, you will find that there is almost always some bus line that will go from practically anywhere to anywhere in Beijing. With 5 million cars in Beijing, you’re bound to have friends that have cars at this point, so you can also consider carpooling with them in advance. Renting cars over the weekend is another relatively inexpensive option if you have managed to obtain an Chinese driver’s license. During rush hour, the good old-fashioned bicycle is the best way to travel short distances quickly. Of course, if you hit the streets on your bike, you will need our Chinese Language Guide to Road Rage.