Hailing in Vain: Beijing’s Taxicab Crisis

Anyone who has spent time in Beijing in recent years knows how difficult it can be to flag down a cab in the massive metropolis, especially during the city’s infamously congested rush hours. One reason for the apparent lack of vacant cabs stems from long stagnant fare rates. The Atlantic reports on how low fares render cab drivers unable to meet their operation costs, and hence unwilling to take on customers during peak commute times:

In one widely-circulated news report, a Beijing cab driver with over ten years’ experience was quoted as saying that “more than ten thousand” cabs could be found parked around the city’s center during rush hour, their drivers refusing to carry passengers until traffic subsided. Even when taxis do stop for passengers during peak traffic times, they often refuse rides if they think that the road ahead will be congested.

“It takes half an hour to hail a cab during rush hour, and even then it depends on the driver’s mood,” complained one Beijing commuter. “If you can’t reach an agreement with the driver, they just leave.” It is not uncommon for cabbies to bargain for a higher fare than they would get on-meter.

But cab drivers in Beijing protest that the costs of running a taxi are too high to make a decent living under the best traffic conditions, let alone during rush hour. According to a chart compiled by China Youth Daily, if a cab driver in Beijing works every day of the week for 10 hours a day, the basic costs of running his cab — including rent paid to the cab company, car maintenance and gas — come to around 30 RMB (about $4.83) per hour. This causes many drivers to park their taxis during rush hour, when it can often take 40 minutes to travel a single kilometer and leave cabbies earning less than their basic expenses.

While many licensed cabbies choose to wait until trafic has subsided, those who are willing to drive through rush hour can create opportunities for others to profit. A blog post from Geoff Kristof, son of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, relays his experience paying for rules to be bent during rush hour.

When a commuter is unable to find a legal cab, they are often forced to turn to one of Beijing’s ubiquitous “black taxis” (黑车 – literally “black car”). Xinhua reports:

In Beijing, the number of licensed taxis has been limited to 66,600 over the past decade. In the meantime, the capital’s population has grown from about 13.8 million in 2003 to the current 20 million.

The scarcity of licensed taxis has spawned a booming market for “black cars.” Unlike registered cabbies, these drivers are often private car owners who pay no monthly fees and offer cheaper fares.

Their poaching of passengers, along with high franchise fees and cut-rate service fares, have resulted in cab driver protests and walkouts in several cities in recent years.

When Beijing’s licensed cabbies tap-out for rush hour to protect their botom line, this creates a niche in the transportation market and an opportunity for unlicensed drivers. China Daily has more on the “black taxi” scene, its dangers, legal battles against these unsanctioned autos, and what leads drivers into this illicit trade:

“Licensed cab drivers sometimes refuse to pick up passengers downtown if they’re going to rural areas, especially on rainy days,” one black-taxi driver told China Daily as he drove from Sanlitun to Wudaokou.

“I’m always willing to do business, although some passengers are too afraid to get in my car.”

The driver, who did not want to be named, said he is from Heilongjiang province and did not want to break the law. However, like many migrants, he is barred from applying for a taxi license under city regulations, which requires all drivers to have Beijing hukou, a permanent residency permit.

Meanwhile, a genuine cabbie who gave his name as Shen said many black-taxi drivers are former license holders looking to boost their incomes.

“I pay my company more than 6,000 yuan a month (in rent), so I can only earn a little,” he said. “That’s why some drivers give up their jobs and turn to illegal operation.”

Despite the argument made by many that black taxis fill a gap in the public transport system, legal experts largely agree they are bad for the capital.

For more on traffic, cabs, “black taxis” or discontented cabbies, see prior CDT coverage.


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