Worsening taxi situation bad for drivers and residents
Published: Apr 03, 2014 06:28 PM

Illustration: Lu Ting/GT

More and more, people seem to be complaining about the difficulty of finding a taxi in Shanghai, both at weekdays and weekends, let alone rush hours or in bad weather. Where are the taxis, and what is happening to the taxi sector?

The rise of apps that allow people to book, and even bid for, taxis has made the situation noticeably worse. Sometimes we see a vacant taxi with its "for hire" sign illuminated, but still it ignores us, as the drivers are on their way to pick up a passenger who has booked them via one of the apps. With these apps offering cash bonuses to both drivers and passengers, the situation is understandable.

But it is not only these apps that are to blame for the difficulty in getting a cab. There is also a shortage of drivers - not only for taxis, but also for buses, with one bus route having been canceled.

Meanwhile, it has been reported that a significant percentage of cabs are not being used to their full capacity.

Frequently we hear news about cases in which taxi drivers have suffered serious accidents, and even death, due to fatigue from overwork. Each time there is such a story, there is a heated debate over how to solve the problem. But no practical panacea exists, particularly as the taxi companies need to take costs into consideration.

The drivers have to work long hours and overtime to earn more money, but they still can't make enough to live a comfortable life. They think the amount they work is disproportionate to their income, so many quit to find another job. Day by day, the driver shortage becomes more of a headache for the city.

As such, passengers in Shanghai look set to continue suffering, while at the same time living in the city with the highest taxi fare rates on the Chinese mainland. Compared with Beijing, Shanghai passengers pay about 20 to 30 percent more to travel the same distance by taxi - sometimes even more when taking into account the night rates.

While Shanghai is the country's economic center with higher average income than other cities, it's understandable that rates are higher. However, it seems illogical that taxi drivers in Shanghai are still dissatisfied with their income. Where has the money gone?

In Shanghai, all of the taxis must be registered with a company. That means individuals are not allowed to run a taxi. The regulation also applies to other cities with some minor differences in accordance with local regulations. The taxi companies buy the vehicles and obtain the necessary documents for business. They then rent the taxis to drivers, who pay a set administration fee on a daily basis. In all, companies collect about 10,000 yuan ($1,610) from each taxi per month. Usually two drivers share a cab. This can be 12 hours per driver per day, or the drivers take it in turn every other day. If a driver doesn't have a partner to share the car, he has to get the car back to a designated point by a fixed time every day.

Cabbies can often be heard moaning about the amount they earn, and how much they have to pay to their companies each month, which is why they like long fares to suburban areas and Pudong International Airport. But drivers can't get such long fares every day. Most days they are tired and exhausted. The increasing price of gas is also a burden for them - on the eve of a gas price hike, it's not uncommon to see long queues of taxis waiting to get one last refill at the previous price.

If a driver is unlucky enough to have a traffic accident, then he can expect further economic losses. Knowing all this, it's not hard to imagine the pressure these drivers are under.

For veteran cabbies, the psychological gap is even harder to conquer. In the early 1980s and even 1990s when private cars were a rarity, being a taxi driver was regarded as a good job. They served only the elite and rich clients. Being a taxi driver to some extent meant being a part of that circle, with an income higher than that of comparable level jobs, so drivers could feel proud and even superior to others as far as their occupation was concerned.

But now, all the advantages of being a taxi driver have disappeared. Downtown Shanghainese are unwilling to be a taxi driver, so we see people from rural Chongming Island becoming drivers. Even they find it to be not such a good job, so now we are seeing people from neighboring Jiangsu Province taking up the role. They try to make up for their unfamiliarity with the city by using GPS systems.

As such, the drop in service levels is becoming obvious, although passengers are paying more and more. Being a taxi driver is not a decent and well paid job, so a driver shortage is an unavoidable reality.

This means the hardship of getting a taxi will be a long-term problem facing Shanghai residents. In this respect, Shanghai is truly becoming the international city it aspires to be, although there is still some way to go before taxis here are as unaffordable and rare as they are in London or New York. Good luck finding your next taxi!

The author is the managing editor of Global Times Metro Shanghai.