Beijing Tries to Tame Its Wild Taxis before '08 Olympics

By Amelia Newcomb writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 2, 2005 | Go to article overview

Beijing Tries to Tame Its Wild Taxis before '08 Olympics


Amelia Newcomb writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


On a hazy afternoon that threatens rain, my two companions and I hail a taxi. Our driver, Wang Yi, is friendly and professional.

He flips the fare meter and starts a small narrative as we make our way through the city's urban labyrinth.

But can this be Beijing? The NASCAR-esque maneuvers are missing - along with heart-stopping lane changes. Stranger still, our ride has no white-knuckle encounters with bicyclists trying to dash across the road.

Instead Yi is calm and polite. "We are turning left, so please fasten your seat belt," he intones as if driving Miss Daisy.

Actually, Yi is not a real taxi driver - yet. For the next 40 days, he'll practice again and again, seven hours a day, six days a week at a taxi school here on the outskirts of Beijing. This is where etiquette and English collide with a no-holds-barred street culture that Chinese officials are determined to tame before the 2008 Olympics.

As the China Daily has noted, the quality of service at the Games will make a lasting impression, and that means doing more than "putting forward a bunch of beautiful young ladies in skin-tight cheongsam, wearing programmed smiles to greet guests at hotel entrances, as we often see in China." It also means not undoing years of urban reengineering in one harried cab ride.

Wong Yongxin is confident he can make a difference. "In 2008, conflict between the driver and passengers won't happen," says the president of the state-owned Training Center of the Beijing Beiqi Group Taxi Company. His tone suggests that this may have been a problem in the past. "China is a welcoming and polite country. Visitors won't have to worry."

But reeducating China's cabbies may prove as challenging as building the Great Wall.

The number of cars in Beijing has doubled in the past five years or so, meaning that taking to the streets can feel like going to war. Right-on-red morphs into right-whenever-I-feel-like-it. Horsepower rules. Pity the poor pedestrian who believes he has the right of way.

Even more challenging is figuring out where to go. Beijing is changing daily as it undergoes a massive face-lift. Only half the candidates here pass the licensing test on the first try. Geography is often the culprit. …

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