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The China Taxi Experience

The taxi driver is perhaps a natural predator of the traveler. They stand above us on the food chain right up there with pickpockets, money changers, and touts. It is for this reason that I get into taxi cabs a touch on guard — I make sure the driver knows that I know where I’m going, that [...]

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The taxi driver is perhaps a natural predator of the traveler. They stand above us on the food chain right up there with pickpockets, money changers, and touts. It is for this reason that I get into taxi cabs a touch on guard — I make sure the driver knows that I know where I’m going, that I know roughly how much it should cost, that I have near exact change, and I carry a compass and, if I have one, a map in case I feel that I’m being taken for “a ride.” Standard operating procedure.

But in China I flag down a cab without reservation, tell the driver where I want to go, and generally act like a normal passenger. Why? Because in all my travels in China I’ve never had a cab driver try to scam me too hard. The only problems I’ve ever had was a driver restarting the meter a second time after dropping off one of my friends mid-route and a taxi guy who said he would take me over the Mongolian border but split when we arrived and found that it hadn’t opened yet. Nothing to get too excited about. I can say assured that taxi scams outside of tourist areas in this country are relatively rare. Even in the heart of a tourist zone I generally don’t expect the driver to try to rip me off.

Taking taxis in China is an incredibly straight forward process. There is a red light on the dash board that is turned on when the cab is accepting passengers. When you get in the driver pulls down the light — which is on a hinge — and the meter automatically starts. There’s no negotiating on the price — you generally pay what the meter says at the end of your ride. Often a receipt is even printed by the meter which says how much you paid, the fare rate, the taxi number, and how long your ride was. Theoretically, I suppose you could take this receipt to a police station, a tourism bureau, or the taxi company itself if you feel that you were ripped off and want retribution.

It is also easy to navigate most cities in eastern China, as they are often set up on a grid pattern and the street signs indicated the cardinal direction you’re traveling in. So it is not too much of a challenge to tell if your driver is taking you in the wrong direction in an attempt to run up the meter.

Video of the China taxi experience

Taxis in China are almost too cheap

Taking a taxi in most Chinese cities is cheap. Often times, it is quite literally too cheap. Taxi fares are government regulated, and this legislation often does not keep pace with rising gas and living expenses. There has been 60 taxi strikes in the country since 2004 as drivers and taxi companies are caught in the middle of the free market (rising expenses) and the regulated one (they can’t raise the cost of their service without government approval). This creates a tough situation where the pursuit to make a living and profit meets ethics and legality head on.

The starting fare for a taxi in Taizhou is 7 RMB — a little over US$1. I’ve taken taxis across the downtown district of the city and have yet to receive a fare over 8 RMB. It seems to me as if the price of fuel should sometimes cost more than my fare in this city, and I very well may be right. It is reported that it takes around 400 RMB a day to fuel a taxi in China: that’s a lot of rides to merely break even.

One thing to keep in mind is that the taxi companies in some cities charge a gas tax — an extra 1 to 3 RMB payment that the passenger must make above the meter price — to balance out operating costs with rising prices. The gas tax is a real charge, it is not a scam. If the driver asks for one or two RMB extra at the end of your ride he may not be ripping you off. Inquire if there is a gas tax before taking a taxi in a Chinese city you’re not familiar with.

In some cities entire taxi companies have stopped using their meters all together. If you want a ride you have to negotiate the price with the driver.

The gas tax and the refusal to use meters in certain cities is part of a growing tide in the disputes between taxi drivers and their local governments. These moves are more or less protests by the drivers in their ongoing labor struggle — so don’t take it personally.

Ironically, the low cost of taxi service in China may lead to you being ripped off, and incidents of drivers saying that cheating customers is the only way they can make ends meet are common. In this climate I’m actually surprised that the drivers are as honest as they are.

Chinese taxi

Taxis in China Conclusion

When taking a taxi in China the only thing to be truly weary of is the driving. I’m sure there are road rules written somewhere but it’s clear that nobody follows them. Cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, mopeds, ebikes, and bicycles seemingly travel where they please: even the opposite side of the road is not off limits. As far as speed goes, the standard operating procedure seems to be to travel as fast as the traffic in front allows you to go. Riding on the streets of China is an adventure activity in and of itself, the only thing to do is grit your teeth, gasp, sit back, and enjoy the show.

Filed under: China, Transportation

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3703 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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  • Stubbs April 27, 2012, 2:03 am

    Chinese taxis are great (and can payoff). They will refuse tips, give you free cigarettes, and love advice. Also, there are no rules of the road, just suggestions.

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    • Wade Shepard April 27, 2012, 7:15 pm

      For sure, taxis are a strange way to interact with a person for a social sect you’d probably never hang out with too much otherwise. I can only imagine the love advice that you’ve received from Chinese cab drivers haha. Any thoughts on coming back to China? They’re talking of making a permanent residence permit for foreign professionals. That would probably be you after you finish law school.

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