The trouble with taxis in Beijing…

…is that you can never find one!

I used to get annoyed at people who complained about getting taxis in Beijing when I first moved here in late 2009. I was, of course, coming from Singapore and New York, where fares were way high (my average commute in those two cities were $8-10 vs. $3 here) and cabs were hard to find. Try hailing on the corner of 45th and 5th at 6pm on a Friday night! I resorted to crashing other people’s taxis and offering to pay the whole fare many times…

But, this early in 2013 I have noticed that it has become increasingly hard to get any kind of transportation (unless you count the death traps that are public buses and the subway system at rush hour). Here’s a simple summary of my experience:

2009: never had a problem finding taxis

2010: “black cabbies” (not taxis but private individuals making a buck driving a passenger vehicle around town) start entering my phone book. I resort to taking them at 1.5-2x the fare of official taxis.

2011: black cabbies tell me to start booking them in advance, and I often couldn’t get one because they all had regular bookings from commuters

2012: I resort to taking tricycles (aluminum boxes on wheels), also unlicensed and illegal, during rush hours

2013: last week a tricycle driver gave me his business card and said, “Book in advance please”!!!

Instead of getting mad at the cabbies, I’m annoyed at the system. Cab fares have been flat since almost 10 years ago. And what has inflation been in the meantime? If you were a cabbie consistently for the last ten years, your quality of life has deteriorated beyond repair. Agenda Beijing did a great job with back of the envelop calculations on how unprofitable cabbies are.

So, instead of picking up rides cabbies sometimes 1) hide out in a corner until traffic gets better, 2) call it a day and go home, 3) refuse to pick up desperate hailers on the street, 4) or don’t run the meter and see who gives them the best offer.

Yesterday was a snow day and I was late to teach my morning yoga class. I knew I was screwed as soon as I got onto the street. So I ran into an intersection during a red light and told the cabbie – who was getting ready to refuse before I even got close – I would give him RMB 50 (~$9) for a RMB 20 ride. He agreed.

We chatted and I asked him if a typical RMB 10 (starter fare, short ride) ride is profitable and he said, “If there’s any traffic, not at all!” He seemed embarrassed to take my high offer but did anyway. I told him not to worry about it – we’re all victims of strange policy and inefficient pricing mechanisms in this market!

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6 thoughts on “The trouble with taxis in Beijing…

  1. Cab fare HAS gone up in the past ten years (from 1.2 or 1.6 to 2 RMB per km in 2006, plus the fuel surcharge), but not at the pace of inflation. Most drivers I’ve talked to about money say they make about 4,000-6,000 a month after paying their 200 RMB per day franchise fee.

    I think the biggest issue in not finding a taxi is that the number of taxis on the road is capped, and the number has not gone up AT ALL. So while the number of people wanting taxis increases, the same number of taxis are available for us to fight over…

    • Tanya, I agree with you that the cap on supply of taxis is a problem. Earnings incentive is the other problem. The one-time 1.60 to 2.00 RMB bump up in per km fare was an increase, but as you point out, far from the annual inflation. Also, I’m not sure if the bump up was a like-for-like increase because the old cabs that used to run at lower fares were also scrapped, leaving only the higher fare cabs that are allowed to run on the streets.

      • I’m glad the 1.20 cabs are no longer running. Remember those dirty dingy Xiali’s? And every time I go to a smaller city, or even Shanghai, I’m grateful for the draconian inspections of cab interiors. Beijing cabbies, at least the ones from the city proper, now generally keep their car seat covers white and foot rugs swept. Elsewhere I sometimes feel like I should bring my own seat cushions…

      • Good point. But I remember the challenge of working out if a cab was a 1.2 or 1.6 from down the street so you didn’t flag the expensive one by mistake. Or the joy of discovering the summer treasure of a 1.2 with working air conditioning when needing a ride across town… Back then I was a poor student, so could appreciate the “experience” of squashing 3 tall foreigners into the backseat of tiny Xiali cabs. These days I very much appreciate the cleaner cabs with more leg room!

      • That’s right! Friends were reminiscing about the 90s – Cui Jian, being poor students (or middle class and living in Haidian), not having to worry about eating yangrouchuan’r on the street… Maybe I take nostalgia tours of the west side more often!

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