A few days into living in Changchun, I’ve already taken 8 or 9 cab rides. It’s quite a different experience from getting a taxi in the US. Cabs are everywhere, and it hasn’t been difficult to find them at all. But that’s where the similarities end.
First off, cab drivers have no obligation to take you as a passenger. The common stereotype that minorities in the US have a harder time getting a taxi is magnified here. Many empty cabs will drive right past a foreigner and look for a Chinese fare. This may be because they assume the foreigner won’t speak Chinese and it will be a headache figuring out where they want to go. Or it may be they just don’t like foreigners. On average, 2/3 of the empty cabs have outright ignored our hails and driven on.
Once the cab has stopped, there is still no guarantee you’re getting in. The driver will lean over and expect you to shout at them where you want to go. If he doesn’t like the destination, he’ll just drive on. This is true for domestic passengers as well. If your driver doesn’t want to go that direction, you’re not getting in.
Now that you’ve hit the jackpot and found a driver that will pull over for a foreigner and agree to your destination, the real adventure begins. The first thing the cab driver will do is start looking for additional passengers to fit in the taxi. You wanted a ride to yourself? Yeah, nice try. Empty seats don’t pay the bills. So rather than head straight to your destination, expect your cabbie to pull over for any other potential fares until the seats are full. Most all taxis are small four-seat sedans, so you’ll spend most of your ride with three passengers whether you want to or not. If you’re on a long ride, your companions may change a couple times as people are dropped off and new ones are found.
So your cab is full and you’re headed down the road. I hope you aren’t a big fan of defensive driving, because your cab driver won’t be. Prepare for a level of aggressive driving you have only seen in video games. Someone three cars ahead of you leaves too big a gap in front of them? Expect your cab driver to go onto the shoulder and up on the curb to pass three cars to squeeze into that space. Strangely no one will be mad about this. It’s just the way driving is done. It’s incredibly aggressive yet polite driving. Drivers know when they have been beaten and they don’t continue the fight. Someone manages to cut partway in front of you? Ok, you lost, you are now obligated to let them all the way in. Should have defended your space better. The one mental consolation you have as you wonder why you aren’t dead within the first three miles is remembering when you first got in the cab that there isn’t a scratch on it. He’s been driving like this his whole career and the other passengers survived. You probably will, too.
Your ride will be somewhat comfortable. Most of the cabs in Changchun are Volkswagens, which makes sense given that VW has a plant in the city. Don’t expect power windows or fancy stereos. It will be a cheap sedan with a manual transmission, that your cabbie will somehow successfully drive one-handed while also talking into a handheld walkie-talkie the entire trip. Please don’t try this at home.
After your ride is complete, you’ll be quoted a price. And if you do the math, you will realize you haven’t even paid enough to pay for the gasoline, much less provide a wage for the driver. I have to assume there is a government subsidy involved somehow. The cities need taxis. The citizens can’t afford to pay a true market rate that would cover fuel, maintenance, and a reasonable wage. But somehow everyone is getting paid. A typical 20-minute cab ride has been around 24 RMB, or around $4. I’ll update this post later if I can find an actual rate. Note that the cab rates in Changchun are much cheaper than in larger cities like Beijing or Shanghai.
So go ahead! Flag six cabs down. Get in one. Meet new people who are sort of headed the same direction you are. See the road from angles you’d probably never try at home. And enjoy your travels by taxi in Changchun.