Hate flagging down taxis in China? Problem SOLVED [Updated!]

I don’t know about taxis in North America; I can’t remember ever being in one. In China they’re relatively cheap and common, faster than the bus, and you probably don’t own your own car. We take the bus as much as we can, but that still means at least one taxi per week.

Taxis save a ton of time if you don’t get stuck not being able to get one. Flagging down a taxi in China can sometimes be a major pain. They’re all full. Or there aren’t any. Or someone “steals” “yours”. Or — most annoyingly — they’re empty but they inexplicably wave you off. Turns out there are reasons why empty taxis pass right buy you. Sometimes they’re about to change shifts. Sometimes they fear the hassle/awkwardness of a foreigner who might not speak Chinese. But more likely, they’re using one or both of these two free smart phone apps: 快的打车 and 嘀嘀打车. And now that we are, too, our arm-flapping on the side of the road days are mostly a thing of the past.

We’ve been using both these apps for weeks now, and they’re genius. It basically means you never end up wasting time waving your arms at the traffic while trying to out-position all the other roadside arm flappers. You enter where and when you want to be picked up and your destination, it notifies every driver instantly, and they choose whether or not to accept. So far it’s only taken seconds for us to get a reply. You can talk to the drivers directly. And they’re motivated to follow through: this app means they have much less empty car time, but if they fail to show up you can ding them and they risk getting temporarily banned from the software.

UPDATE: Turns out these apps are having an app war, and Zhīfùbǎo is involved, too. That means some great promotions for drivers and riders. You can set them up to use your bank card or 支付宝 (sort of like Paypal). Right now if you use both apps you get 10元 off your fare five times per day (two times with 快的打车 and three times with 嘀嘀打车). Plus you earn points that you can redeem for phone charging or hotel discounts, etc. The drivers get 10 or 15元 for every five people they get to pay with 支付宝,depending on which app they use, which is why they’re all suddenly asking us if we want to use Zhīfùbǎo. — 2014-01-26

This going on our China essentials short-list, along with Pleco (Chinese language learning app), the China Air Quality Index app, and DIY air purifiers.

How to: avoid seat belt fines while still unnecessarily risking your life in Chinese traffic

In China we usually couldn’t wear seat belts even if we wanted to. Taxi drivers have them tucked into the seats to get them out of the way, or they’re dirty and hard to pull out from lack of use. But recently I’ve noticed a lot of taxi drivers doing this:

They’ve started wearing the seat belt without clicking it into place. Every time I ask them they tell me how much money and how many points they’ll lose if a traffic camera catches them without a seat belt (something like 6 points and a few hundred 元 — I forget exactly but it’s steep).

Thoughts like: “I drive all day every day, maybe wearing this thing properly would be worth it” or “Since I’m pulling this thing over my lap anyway, I might as well click it into place and benefit” apparently haven’t crossed anyone’s mind. But how could they not?

Sure, it could just be that they don’t like feeling restricted. But I have a theory:* Chinese attitudes toward laws are different because law means something different here. And this seat belt behaviour at least partially reflects that. (*Yes, I’m making most of this up.)

Rule of law, rule by law & human nature

For North Americans, laws are for us, for the individual. It’s rule of law — at least in our heads. Our laws (in theory, ideally) exist to create equality, protect the common people from the powerful and maximize individual self-determination. Of course the reality differs greatly from the ideal, but the ideal exists and it’s on that basis that we (imagine that we) fight for, abide by or disobey laws, when we aren’t just being rebellious and sticking it to authority out of principle. Disobeying a good law or respecting a bad one runs counter to some of our deepest cultural ideals.

But in China, it’s rule by law. Laws are tools arbitrarily used by the rulers to control the masses; the average individual’s enhancement is not really part of the theoretical equation. For thousands of years. Our Western ideals are not part of China’s cultural DNA, even subconsciously. Instead there’s a pragmatic, power-calculating default posture: “What will happen if I don’t obey?” Compliance is just about avoiding fines from a newly-enforced law that wasn’t created with your well-being in mind. So a seat belt law, stiffly enforced to generate better traffic stats? Sure they’ll do what’s necessary to avoid the fines without stopping to imagine the personal benefit of the law itself, even if gaining that benefit only requires a split-second more effort. When laws aren’t for you, the idea that a new regulation might include a personal benefit doesn’t automatically spring to mind.

But let’s be clear: the cultural contrast I’m drawing here is in degree of tendency. When it comes to cross-cultural experience and behaviour differences, our differences are significant, but so is our common humanity.** People are people: take away the penalties and see how much North Americans respect the concept of rule of law, how much our behaviour is guided by principles! But Westerners’ are still significantly influenced by our cultural ideals and experience involving rule of law, ideals and experience that Mainland Chinese in general do not have. Significantly different historical-cultural influences lean on our human nature, resulting in different default behaviour.

At least that’s my theory. I know I’m stretching it. :) But I’m going to start asking drivers directly anyway, just for fun.

Our own Chinese traffic adventures, like taking video while pedaling one-handed through rush hour traffic in Tianjin, can be found here:

**P.S. – IMO, our differences are more profound than people typically realize. But so is what we have in common. IOW, we’re both more different and more similar than people usually imagine. (Internet acronyms FTW!)

Beijing to “strike hard” against (ha!) Chinese-style traffic

This funny article about a campaign in Beijing to “strike hard” against Chinese-style foot traffic and “bring order to traffic and security” gives me so many warm feelings, reminding me of when we first learned to survive traffic in China during our first couple months. Ah, memories.

Beijing targets those who cross the street ‘with Chinese characteristics’
“…crossing the road with Chinese characteristics has nothing to do with whether the lights are red or green. The determining factor is how many people are waiting on the curb. Once a crowd has reached critical mass, it moves […] I still recall the sense of pride with which I rode my bicycle the wrong way up a street for the first time, taking a call on my mobile phone. I felt like a true Beijinger. And the quaint idea that I should stop at a red light rather than weave a path through the cars getting in my way is one that I abandoned a long time ago.”

Our Chinese traffic adventures, like taking video while pedaling one-handed through rush hour traffic in Tianjin, can be found below:
Traffic right-of-way: China vs. Canada
Tianjin street market dash (video)
Metaphors for Tianjin Traffic
Tianjin bike lane hero grandpas curse out obnoxious bus
Today’s commute by the numbers
How to: Confuse the traffic in your hometown
How to: Ride a Bike in China (Part 2)
Crossing the street (video)
The Rules: arguing after a traffic accident