Photos: Hangzhou’s “Taxi bros” cabbies race with tough life
220 yuan ($34) per day as a commission demanded by the company in the form of operating charges and rent; 200 yuan ($31) on gas. So even before a “taxi bro” (a casual slang for cab driver) in Hangzhou hits the road early in the morning, he is already over 400 yuan ($65) in debt. While the consumer prices in Hangzhou take the lead in the entire nation, the taxi fares haven’t been adjusted accordingly a bit for the past five years. A taxi bro will have to work 12 hours a day full steam ahead in order to at least make ends meet. (Photos by Wang Zicheng 王子诚) (Read about taxi drivers going on strike in Hangzhou early last month)
Hangzhou currently has altogether 8,496 taxi cabs, averaging out to be 33 for every 10,000 people. That drops to 13 per 10,000 if the 50 million tourists and visitors coming to Hangzhou every year are taken into account, which falls short of even one third of the national standard. Despite that the demand outstrips supply, the commission drawn by the company, the surging fuel cost and the low fares have conspired to make driving a cab anything but a plum job. An average cab driver makes 3,000 yuan ($465) per month. The picture shows on August 16, a young son ran out of the home and leans against the car to see his cab-driving father off.
Among the 20,416 registered cab drivers in Hangzhou, about 15,000 of them hail from out of town. Their enclaves are located in Hangzhou’s fringe area. Ganchang Village in Hangzhou’s northeast is one of them. These enclaves attract cab drivers for their low rent and lack of traffic congestion. Living in close vicinity also translates to easier shift rotation. (Two cabbies alternate on two shifts per day.) At least 530 cabs drivers are living in the village of Ganchang. The picture shows homes of cab drivers in Ganchang. In order to keep expenses down, they choose to stay with their family in little rooms like rabbits in a warren.
Electricity in Ganchang is priced for industrial users instead of residential users, at 1 yuan (15.5 U.S. cents) per kilowatt hour. Even though summer daytime temperatures in Hangzhou can soar into three digits Fahrenheit, many cabbies only turn on air conditioners for one or two hours at night during their sleep. After they return home from work, they gather on rooftops, bare-chested, for a chitchat or a whiff or two, and do not leave until it is time to hit the pillow.
Although life is tough, many of them hang on and stay here, for their fellow townsmen are here, and they speak the same language and share weal and woe. Besides, compared with rents in downtown Hangzhou, rent here is really cheap, which is another enticement to stay.
Mr, Zhang from central Henan province returns his home in Ganchang Village at 4 p.m. Soon after he put his belongings down, he went downstairs for some fresh cool air. Torn and worn tires are stacked in the corner of the staircase.
At 4 a.m. on August 30, Mr. Li drove the cab out of Ganchang and began his day shift. Each cab driver has to fork over a commission of 220 yuan for the day shift, or 160 yuan for the night shift per day, whether he works or not on that day. Gas costs about 200 yuan a day. He is 400 yuan in debt even before the tires begin to roll. Only after he makes 400 does he begin to put money into his own pocket.
In June, 2011, China’s consumer price index rose to a 3-year-high, a 6.4 percent increase from a year earlier, mainly driven by a 14.4 percent surge in food prices. Ever skyrocketing cost of living and a taxi pricing system that has remained pretty much the same for five years have been squeezing cab drivers’ already narrow profit margin. The picture shows on August 30, as the rider arrived at her destination, Mr. Li gave her change and reminded her to take her belongings with her.
Mr. Li had bought slices of pancake for three yuan as breakfast. However, he had no time to eat them up for the past two hours. The sedentary job and bad eating habits, including being late for or skipping meals, have turned cab drivers into victims of stomach diseases, prostate problems, chronic neck and back pain.
The downtown Hangzhou has over 734,000 motor vehicles. But until the end of 2009, the total length of public roads within Hangzhou’s old city limits is only about 1,700 kilometers, or 1,060 miles. Road revamps and subway construction have only worsened the road traffic. Hangzhou is no less crowded and congested than Beijing. A cabbie may get stuck in traffic jams and make only 20 or 30 yuan an hour if he stays within the city’s downtown area. The picture shows Mr. Li tuned in to the local radio broadcaster for road traffic report, hoping to circumvent congested streets.
At 12 p.m., Mr. Li went into a noodles restaurant after getting back from a trip to the suburbs. He gulped down the noodles in less than 15 minutes. Li says he usually skips lunch, as it is too much a waste of time.
Before he finished his shift, he went to gas up the cab. The picture shows he stared at the reader. On this day, he drove 200 km, or 125 miles. That translates to 176 yuan for gas. No. 93 (equivalent of U.S. Regular) used to be a little more than 4 yuan per liter. Now it is 7.46 yuan per liter (roughly US$4.35 per gallon). (Read about souring oil prices that take a toll on Chinese car owners)
At 5 p.m. on August 10, a cabbie who had just finished his day of work stood by his car and counted his money. After the fuel cost and the 220 yuan commission were deducted from his income, he only made about 40 yuan ($6) for the day. He bought a pack of cigaret, ate his breakfast. He would have to pay for his dinner, rent and utilities bills. He had earned just enough to make ends meet. Then there is oil subsidy from the government at the end of each quarter. Last quarter, the government doled out 4,995 yuan for each cab. Cabbies on day and night shift go 40-60 over that. So a day shift driver can get about 666 yuan as subsidy every month.
During rush hours in the evening, grabbing a cab is like a fierce fight among citizens in Hangzhou. You have a better shot at it only if you have sharp eyes and quick sleight of hand. Some one said half-jokingly, “Anything about the city makes it look like a paradise. Only when hailing a taxi will you feel as if you were in hell.”
The picture shows that on the evening of August 22, a family who had just finished their visit to the Broken Bridge were waiting to get in a taxi. The family were standing on both sides of the street and eyeing traffic in opposite directions. They spent more than 10 minutes in vain.
Road-side food stalls have become cabbies’ rest area. Cabbies each have grown used to the flavor of a particular stall. They usually pull in at 11 p.m. for the “lunch” of their night shift. It’s 9 yuan for two veggies and two meat dishes. Business is slow at late night. Cabbies can be left in relative peace while having their meals.
It was later than midnight. The driver was changing tires himself. He said because it was night time, there wouldn’t be a service area for taxi cabs, let alone an inexpensive auto repair. He could only depend on himself to fix the problem.
On August 10, Mr. Jin, who has been in Hangzhou for more than a year, was shown holding a bill in his hand. Several days ago, Mr. Jin hit an electric bike rider. After making sure the rider did not sustain any major injury, Mr. Jin paid him 1,000 yuan nonetheless as compensation. Mr. Jin said his monthly income had gone down the drain.
The bulletin board in Ganchang Village is plastered with advertisements and posters looking for cab drivers. According to limited statistics, at least 400 cab drivers in Hangzhou quit the job since January. Every day, about 200 taxi cabs are left idle because of having no driver. The local traffic radio joked that it is harder to find a driver for the night shift than to win the lottery.
The average monthly income of wage Hangzhou’s wage earners in 2010 is 4,064 yuan ($615), way above the 3,000 yuan that a cab driver makes. By contrast, cab driver has to work under great stress 12 hours a day. The picture shows a cabbie smoking on the rooftop of a building in Ganchang.
Mr. Zhang from Henan province had vacated his fridge. Meager income and high electricity prices are the reason why many cab drivers living in Ganchang have put their fridges and washers out of use. Mr. Zhang will leave Hangzhou by the end of the year. He has packed up the home appliances and some personal possessions in order to mail them home in packages next month.
Some non-local cab drivers have chosen to leave Hangzhou for neighboring cities where cost of living is lower or to become truckers. The majority who stay are pinning their hope on the public hearing on taxi fares held by Hangzhou’s Bureau of Commodity Price on September 9.