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Beijing Taxis: Ready or Not for the Olympics?

New America Media, Commentary, Xujun Eberlein Posted: Sep 13, 2007

Editor's Note: Beijing's traffic laws prevent taxis from stopping along the main downtown avenue. Foreign visitors, who will likely spend time on the famous street during the Olympics, might have to learn this the hard way.

BEIJING -- On a Thursday evening in August, between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m., I tried unsuccessfully for nearly an hour to catch a taxi along Chang'An Avenue the main artery in downtown Beijing. This was not necessarily because of any car shortage. According to Xinhua news agency, Beijing has 66,000 officially permitted taxis, a quantity said to have reached "saturation." In an attempt to relieve severe congestion, however, the city's traffic law prevents taxis from stopping at any point along the five-kilometer long road. Foreign visitors, who will likely spend time on the famous street, might have to learn this the hard way as I did.

When I finally got a taxi, one whose driver had broken the rule to pick me up on the corner of a small street that intersects Chang'An, I asked, "If it's so difficult to catch a taxi now, what will happen during the Olympics?"

"Don't you worry," the driver replied. "Then everyone will have two weeks of paid vacation, and all migrant workers will be sent home. You'll get a taxi easily."

"What, no one works for two weeks?" I was a bit surprised.

The driver grinned and said: "Except for people like us."

During my week-long stay in Beijing, this "two-week vacation" policy set especially for Beijing's working people during the 2008 Olympics was repeatedly mentioned by friends and other taxi drivers. China has not officially announced this policy, though sohu.com reported last August that the co-chair of Beijing's Olympics Organizing Committee, Jiang Xiaoyu, said such a policy was "under investigation."

Shutting down businesses for two weeks would not be a surprise. China has the tradition of placing the country's image higher than anything else, including economics, and to the Chinese the Olympics may well be more a political than a sporting event.

In related news, XinhuaNet.com reported last April that "during the Olympics, Beijing will reduce the motor vehicle traffic by 20 to 30 percent," for the 3.3 million cars on the road. The report did not mention how.

Even if Beijing's taxi supply meets demand during the Olympics, for which Beijing has prepared enough hotels to receive more than half a million foreign visitors, there are still issues that don't matter to the Chinese, but might prove to be a nuisance for others. For example, there are no working seatbelts on the rear seats of taxis. More accurately speaking, the belts hang on the side with nowhere to plug them in. When asked why, the drivers blamed it on a rule requiring them to change the seat covers daily. Drivers are fined if they fail to keep their covers clean. The fabric cover, a standard product, however, is not designed with a hole for the belt plug. Changing the fabric while keeping the seat belts working proved to be so difficult that the drivers opted to remove the belt plug instead. "You don't need to put on the seatbelt," they comforted me. "Only the driver is required to. You won't be fined."

Another seemingly small thing that bothered me was the absolute freedom to smoke. I did not enter a single taxi that did not reek of cigarette. Each rear door of a standard taxi has a metal ashtray attached to it. "If you have the ashtray, you ought to let a passenger smoke," one driver answered to my questions.

To be fair, Beijing's taxis also have good practices. One thing of a great help to me is that the driver will hand you a receipt as mandated, with the printed information of the taxi company as well as the car's and the driver's license numbers. I found how valuable this practice was when I lost my favorite sunglasses. This is not the case in other large Chinese cities such as Shanghai, Chongqing, and Chengdu, all of which I traveled in this summer. In those cities you won't get a taxi receipt unless you ask for one, which I tended not to.

Beijing issues taxi-driving licenses only to its local residents. That is, you must have a Beijing "hukou" city resident registration to be able to drive a taxi. This officially prevents migrant workers from entering this business. Whether this is good or bad from a political point of view, I found the driver's familiarity with the city an added assurance not to mention their pleasantly glib accent that is unique to Beijing people.

There is also the report that Beijing has removed from operation 28,000 taxis this year because their trunks were not big enough for a wheelchair.

A caution to foreign visitors - be careful about "black-market" taxis! In Beijing there were more of them than the officially permitted taxis, according to a 2006 report on Xinhua Net. I have heard of, and read from the Internet, quite a number of stories with innocent foreigners being charged ten or more times the proper price, though I'd be more worried about my safety. The black-market taxis can be deceptive because they might have a taxi sign on top, and some drivers can even speak a few English words. It helps to be able to recognize the official license plate.

Otherwise, there's a rule of thumb: if a driver approaches you rather than being approached, be wary.

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