Luckily, I hardly ever use taxis these days. Nearly all of my training assignments are accessible - after a fashion - by bus or subway (the opening of the Line 4 subway 18 months ago has fairly revolutionised my life!). And, on the handful of occasions when I do head over to Sanlitun, I usually walk - both ways.
But I have lately become aware of a sudden and growing phenomenon of extreme arsiness among our city's cab drivers - particularly around Sanlitun. Every single time I've found myself over there in the past two or three months, whatever the time of night or day of the week, I've found large numbers of cabbies either grumpily declining to stop altogether, or attempting to negotiate an 'off the meter' fare. It typically seems to take 3, 4, 5, 6 attempts before you can get someone to take you. And, when there are a lot of people waiting to try and get cabs, it just doesn't seem worth the hassle. (A related - and really rather useful - phenomenon, though, is the upsurge in the number of unlicensed cabs, hei che, daring to operate in the city centre now. We've obviously reached a point where, at least at peak times, the number of legitimate cabs is no longer adequate to meet demand.)
This is a very worrying development. Despite the common penchant - amongst foreigners and Chinese! - for berating the many typical foibles and failings of Beijing's taxi drivers, I think we are in fact very well off in our taxi service in this city. Taxis are plentiful, very, very cheap - and at least half of the drivers have some idea of where they're going.
I worry that there are economic factors at play in the recent outbreak of unfortunate bolshieness among our cab drivers. It's never been a particularly lucrative profession; and, despite the small fuel surcharges added to fares over the last year or so, I gather the operating margins are really getting squeezed by a succession of fuel price rises. Recruitment and retention of drivers is becoming a big problem; I haven't seen any official figures on this, but I strongly suspect that the number of cabs in service has fallen quite sharply, perhaps by as much as 10 or 15% in the last couple of years. Having those drivers who remain in the job become so unhappy with their lot that they huffily withdraw themselves from service - or withdraw from legitimate service and start operating as hei che - at busy times quickly produces a dramatic shortfall in taxi availability. Between 11pm and midnight, you often see hordes of Chinese youngsters, having missed the last bus home, standing in forlorn clumps along the side of the road, hoping to hail a cab. They can sometimes be in for a very long wait. On weekends, particularly one of the national holiday weekends, it can take an hour or two to clear this peak backlog. My pal The Chairman, who lives away up in Wudaokou, seems to be regularly caught out by this (one of the reasons, no doubt, why he so rarely comes out to play with me any more).
This never used to happen. It is a phenomenon I have only started to notice this year; really, just within the last 3 or 4 months. The Taxi Supervision Bureau really needs to get on the case and do something about this promptly.
And, of course, when our taxi fleet is over-stretched, stressed out drivers rather too readily rediscover their lurking anti-foreigner hostility. I've seen plenty of Chinese ignored by drivers who don't want to pick up a fare for some mysterious reason. And I've seen plenty of Chinese get in a row with a driver who's trying to ask for an inflated 'off the meter' fare. But it happens to foreigners more - WAY MORE. A number of times recently, I've found it more or less impossible to get a cab, or at least had to endure 5 or 6 available cabs ignoring me before I finally managed to hail one. And I've heard similar anecdotes of frustration from many of my foreign friends here in the last few weeks.
What's the reason for this, I wonder? Has there been a rash of anti-foreigner propaganda in the papers again for some reason? Perhaps in response to a poll report that 85% of world leaders think the Dalai Lama is rather a nice chap?? Or is it just that Beijing's cabbies have become as irritated as I am with the huge numbers of crass Young Americans plaguing our city these days? Well, whatever it is, I hope they get over it - and SOON.
Getting home at night - in a city where the bus and subway systems wind down well before 11pm - is getting to be a real problem.