Zombies and Beijing's Taxi Woes

TIME’s Austin Ramzy laments the crowded rush hour taxi scene in Beijing, which he compares to “zombies after fresh human brains,” and examines a system facing a crisis of quality while resisting the inflationary pressures impacting the rest of the Chinese economy:

But one thing that cabs have going in their favor is price. The flag fall is usually 10 rmb, 11 rmb at night ($1.55/$1.75) for the first 3 km, and then 2 rmb (30 cents) per subsequent kilometer, up to 15 km, at which point the price rises to 3 rmb (45 cents). By way of comparison, a 5-mile trip in Beijing would cost about $3.50. In Chicago it would cost you more like $10 before tip. Beijing’s rates have been in place since 2006 (story in Chinese) and the only increase has been a 2 rmb fuel charge added this spring for trips over 3 km. That makes cabs a rare bastion of price stability in a place where most everything else—food, fuel, housing, wages—is going up. A 5 gallon jug of water that cost 11 rmb in 2007 now runs 19 rmb.

In other cities in China, the cab market is handled differently. In Shenzhen and Shanghai, the cabs are just more expensive. In other cities, like the southeastern factory town of Wenzhou, where I traveled last week, the cabs are effectively more expensive, because none of the drivers agree to go by metered rates. Instead every trip is a negotiation between passenger and driver, and the trip price starts at around 100 rmb. Beijing cab drivers have less leeway. Enforcement is more strict in the capital, making it hard for drivers to ignore metered rates. And a strike, which drivers in several Chinese cities resorted to in 2008, would not be tolerated here, Beijing cabbies say.

This summer, taxi drivers in Hangzhou and Shanghai went on strike against rising fuel costs, a lack of benefits and the high accommodation charges that Ramzy notes in his piece.

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