Rough ride

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 July, 2006, 12:00am

Beijing's taxi drivers give an instant and unforgettable first impression of the city. The streets are full of their new yellow cars, and time spent in traffic jams can be whiled away with their commentary on world issues or the World Cup.

Be it their extraordinary friendliness or remarkable halitosis, they are as much a part of the character of the city as black cabs are in London. Yet their unofficial strike recently drew no more interest than does their plight during the rest of the year: it was ignored.

The action, taken by about half of Beijing's cab drivers, was hardly a surprise. They eke out a miserable existence, driving at least 10 hours a day, seven days a week, to pay the hefty car rental fees. They are also responsible for all repairs and for the increasingly expensive fuel.

Two situations triggered the strike: one was a recent rise in passenger fares to 2 yuan a kilometre, which prompted people to start riding buses and bicycles. The number of daily passengers, said one driver, has fallen from at least 20 to as low as eight.

Another effect of the fare increase is a sudden rise in the number of 'black', or unofficial, cab drivers, who can be found idling their engines as they wait for fares outside apartment complexes and other buildings. Many are former official taxi drivers.

The second reason was the increasing price of fuel. Drivers are shelling out at least 5 yuan a litre - double last year's price. 'We still have to find 2,000 yuan a month to pay the companies,' said one driver. 'At first we were pleased the fares were going up because, for a capital city, they're still cheap. But, in fact, we're earning even less.'

Another driver lamented their general situation: 'The government doesn't care about us. It just wants to help the firms. Probably half the bosses are related to officials. We keep being told that Beijing is a modern city and everyone is doing so well. Yet we still find ourselves driving for 12 hours a day, every single day, without a rest even on public holidays.'

Drivers claim the police jump on them for the slightest motoring offence, while the appalling driving of private-car owners is largely ignored.

Yet, Beijing's taxi drivers usually remain inexplicably cheery. They are an essential form of transport, and one of the first points of encounter for tourists, at the airport or railway station. Most are willing to do what they can to find destinations described to them in the sketchiest Putonghua.

In other major international cities, like London, cab drivers earn a good wage. It's time the authorities started leaning on the cab firms to give these forgotten souls - the ones who keep the firms in business, remember? - a break.