You Talkin' to Me?

Spend an hour in Taipei and you'll definitely come away with this impression: the city is awash with taxis. Taipei has a world class transit system and yet taxis play a big part in the shaping of the city's image and culture. I guess there are two reasons for this: they're cheap, typical fares run at NT$150 (a few bucks US), and they're "convenient," probably the most positively received concept in all of Taiwan. To hail a taxi, you're looking at three to five minutes. Often you don't even need to take it this far. Taxi drivers will honk at you if they see you on a sidewalk and sometimes even slow down and follow you, block a crosswalk, etc.

Taipei's taxis have been a topic of discussion recently, thanks to the Taiwanese performer Makiyo. A few weeks ago, she and a friend beat a driver senseless because he had the audacity to ask them to buckle up: http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2012/02/11/2003525188. In general, Taiwanese people seem to look down on the drivers. A common refrain is "they're all ex-cons!" In the Makiyo case, there is a lot of sympathy for the driver nonetheless. I'm guessing it stems from the fact he was beaten up by Makiyo, who is half-Japanese, and a non-Mandarin speaking Japanese friend. I doubt the story would have gotten the same media coverage had the attack happened at the hands of locals. With all of the taxi drivers out there, violence against them must occur on a regular basis. Apart from Makiyo, when's the last time you opened a Taiwan-based paper to a story of an attack on a taxi driver?

I rode in a taxi four times today. Instead of doing what I usually do, which is nothing, I decided to ask the drivers about how often they face violence, and what they do about it. I came away with basically the same story. All four of my drivers have been threatened. This happens on a regular basis too, like every three to four months. None of them were threatened by "foreigners" however (I was specifically asking this question). Usually, problems arise when they are cheated out of their fares. All four drivers said the same thing: they have learned not to confront passengers who do not wish to pay. They have all come to the same conclusion, namely, it's easier just to let it go. One driver told me he was stiffed just recently. It seems three passengers got in a fight while still inside his cab. Then, one passenger pulled out a knife. The other two fled, he giving chase. And wouldn't you know it? Nobody came back to pay the fare. At the end of the day, no journalist showed and no paper covered it. Another driver was also threatened with a knife, by teenagers in Keelung. He did the smart thing and ran away. When he returned to his cab, one of the teenagers was waiting around for some reason. He didn't have a knife, which was unfortunate for him, because the driver knew judo. This driver was interesting fellow; he used to be a sailor and has thus been all over the world. He even told me, upon discovering my nationality, he'd been to Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and L.A. (but I digress).

In my opinion, the life of a taxi driver isn't easy here. Taipei's streets are constantly clogged with traffic. For driving around for 12 hours, I've been told, a cabbie can expect to earn around NT$1000 to NT$1200 (30 to 35 bucks US). After the essentials (gas and smokes), it's closer to NT$800. Personally speaking, I'm on their side. Sure, I have had run-ins with them. I've even taken a driver to court: http://patrick-cowsill.blogspot.com/2010/07/how-to-go-to-court-in-taiwan.html, but 97.5 percent of the time, the experience has been one of satisfaction. I think I'll report back on this topic from time to time and check in with a post when I do have a story about a "foreigner" getting aggressive. I'll also compile some statistics. Right now, it's zero for four.

BTW, you know how some taxi drivers take the head rest off the passenger's seat in the front? I always figured it was for either a) to remove a blind spot when changing lanes or b) to see what the passenger in the back seat right was up to. It turns out it's neither. The drivers don't like it when people try to hail them and they already have fares on board. With the head rest gone, it's easier for us to see inside. I told my wife and she said "That's ridiculous! The light on top of the cab indicates whether the taxi has riders or not." Be that as it may, many cabs are missing the head rest in the front passenger's seat so that you can count heads.

My friend Doug took the two photographs (above and below) on his cool new Nikon D7000 (with the filter on). He's one of the best photographers I know: http://www.thecyclingcanadian.com/


Terry J. Benzie said...

Interesting post. Last week a driver asked me to fasten my seatbelt and I thanked him for reminding me. He then thanked me for not getting upset. We didn't take for a long time but he said that many Taiwanese (his words; I took it as meaning zero foreigners) got upset when he told them to do so.

After my ride, I was wondering what it would be like to expect at people would get angry with you throughout the day. Next time I will inquire a bit further like you did.

Had never heard then seatpost angle.

Oh yeah, FOUR CABS IN A DAY????

Patrick Cowsill said...

"After my ride, I was wondering what it would be like to expect at people would get angry with you throughout the day."

Stressful, just like driving in constant traffic would be.

The driver who got gypped by the guy with the knife said all they have to do now is say "there is a law" or something like that and they're off the hook. If they don't do this, they're liable for an NT$3000 fine. I took a cab the other day and they had the seat belt suggestion on recording.

"Oh yeah, FOUR CABS IN A DAY????" Call it laziness / decadence.

Rich J Matheson said...

Refreshing perspective. I've always thought cab drivers here have an undeserved bad rep. I've found them to be friendly and a good source on information if in a strange city.
Yes, nice pictures!

Anonymous said...

Ah that wonderful filter called CARTOON for the pictures, thanks.

Steven Crook said...

I pretty much agree with everything. A few drivers would benefit from basic etiquette lessons (i.e. don't rant against foreigners to the Taiwanese passenger, because the foreigner in the cab might understand - that happened in Kaohsiung a year or so ago) but on the whole they do a good job considering how little money they make and how much stress they must suffer.

I remember, back in the early 1990s, Taiwanese drivers getting upset because I insisted on putting my seat belt on. "You think I'm a bad driver!!!!???!!" was what one guy said.

Patrick Cowsill said...

""You think I'm a bad driver!!!!???!!" was what one guy said."

I have had a similar experience with a friend's father. I want to put on a seat belt. When I drive, every passenger buckles up. I have always insisted, right back to when I was 16.