Reading the Lost Laowai blog, I enjoyed an early rant complaining about the status of public transportation back home (for the author) in Canada. According to his calculations, taxis in China are less than the cost of public transportation in Vancouver. This may well be true. I know that a taxi where I lived in Guiyang is less than the cost of a subway or bus ticket here in Atlanta. If three or four people share the taxi then the costs are definitely better (no more than 20 RMB versus 8 USD for four riders on the Atlanta subway).
This is, unfortunately, a faulty logic – and one we fall into all the time in China. Yes, the costs would be so much cheaper than their US equivalents – if we were still paid US salaries. For foreign expatriates in China paid in their home currencies at approximately (or greater) rates than they earned at home, then it is perfectly reasonable to comment about home much less expensive taxis in China are than other forms of transportation back home. But if you are paid 4000 RMB per month as an English teacher, think about how that translates into your home currency. Then think about how many taxi rides you can (really) afford. Suddenly, the cost of living seems reasonable if not actually quite high in China.
That all being said, I LOVE the taxis in China. The taxi system exists in nearly every town I have visited all the way down to fifth tier cities like Anshun in Guizhou. Unlike in the US where taxis outside of New York City are basically a call-on-demand type service, every Chinese city has taxis that cruise the streets looking for fares. This is amazingly convenient – and when one is traveling with a Western expectation for the cost of transportation will seem amazingly cheap. While costs have been rising, they are still reasonable in many places. In Anshun and Zunyi, taxis cost 5 RMB at flag fall. Guiyang was 10. Beijing and Shanghai are – predictably – more. All told, however, unless one is taking a taxi from Haidian district (the university area of Beijing) to Sanlitun (the old expat bar district on the eastern side of the old city) on a regular basis -which is about 50 RMB or more – then anywhere the taxis are quite affordable.
There are a few issues one should be aware of, however, when deciding to use taxis in China:
1. Always get the name, address, and nearest intersection of wherever you are going written in Chinese characters. Except for the most popular destinations, places like Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou are massive. Don’t expect a taxi driver to know every street address.
2. Don’t trust your ability to pronounce Chinese place names. The movie “Shanghai Kiss” included an amusing montage where the protagonist – a Chinese American who can’t speak Chinese – attempts to say “Jin Mao” – in reference to the Jin Mao building in Pudong where he is staying. The driver proceeds to take him all over Shanghai to every place which sounds like his mangled pronunciation of Jin Mao. I have been in this situation. It is much less funny when you are running late.
3. Drivers tend to keep to their own parts of town. In Shanghai this means drivers from the Puxi and Pudong sides don’t really like to go to the other side of the river. This makes sense because the bridge traffic can be horrific and they often simple do not know the other side well enough to really take you where you want to go. The same can be said for taxis trying to get to outlying districts (even relatively close-in ones) in Shenzhen and Guangzhou. If you have to travel further afield and the driver acts confused, try to get him to call his dispatch office (or a friend) to confirm he knows where he is going.
4. Taxis are not always the fastest way to get around. In Beijing and Shanghai in particular, the subway – uncomfortable as it may be at rush hour – is usually MUCH faster than a taxi stuck in parking lot traffic.
5. Beijing taxi drivers like to talk a lot – at least traditionally. If you are learning (or already speak some) Chinese, try to chat up your driver. It will make the ride go faster and can provide some fascinating insights into life in China.
6. Taxis make a great alternative to formally booking a car and driver. Although there are services for booking fancy business cars with drivers (and in the Pearl River Delta of Guangzhou I actually recommend this), they are generally quite to very expensive – especially for websites in English. The Chinese language ones are often much better priced. If you have the time and flexibility, however, it can be better to try and reserve a taxi driver for a day. Simply flag down a taxi and state your first destination. Then try to negotiate an all day reservation. Typically a Beijing taxi from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM will run you around 400 RMB. It may be more if you are going to a lot of places or out of town to the Great Wall.
7. Get business cards from taxi drivers. Call them up the day before you need a lift to the airport or train station and arrange a pickup. Trying to hail a cab at rush hour hauling three-suitcases in the rain is not fun.
8. If you get a driver for a day, invite him to join you for lunch and treat him. He will greatly appreciate it and it is just common courtesy. Drivers who like you will often give advice on places to go, things to do, and stuff to eat as well.
9. Share the ride. It is hard enough to get a taxi when you need one. Sharing rides with people going in the same general direction should be a no-brainer.
10. Although it sucks, drivers at shift change are not purposefully avoiding you. If your destination is in an area with a lot of traffic or not on their direct route to where they trade off with another driver, they won’t take you. It’s just that simple. And yes, it is infuriating.
Either way, enjoy the road!