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Fresh taxi drivers get lost, ask directions, need maps and GPS

JESSICA Xu, although a native Shanghainese, commonly takes taxis and relies on cabbies to know their way around and get her where she's going.

Like everyone, she wants the shortest, cheapest, fastest way, but these days the 26-year-old graduate student says she often has to check directions beforehand and then direct the cabbie.

"I've been relying on cabs for years and I even nap in cabs, so this is annoying, especially when I'm in a rush," says Xu, who admits she's not very good with directions. "I've been running into new drivers who are not familiar with the roads, but recently there are too many of them and their lack of knowledge is ridiculous."

She is not alone.

So many new drivers these days get lost, ask passengers and others for directions along the way, ask their dispatcher for help, call their driver friends on cell phones, constantly refer to maps and even use GPS (Navigation Satellite Timing and Ranging Global Position System).

Shanghai has around 40,000 taxis and 100,000 drivers for four major companies and many smaller ones, the city reports. No figures are available about how many drivers have been hired in the past year.

But most agree there's a problem with new drivers who are clueless. After they get a basic driver's license, they can be recruited, then they are trained for a few days, given a map and some mentoring and sent on their way. They work in a constantly changing city that sometimes seems like one big construction site.

It's been a problem for the past few years as the city has expanded.

And as World Expo 2010 approaches, taxi companies are gearing up to handle the crowds of sightseers. Hacks who can't hack it won't help the city's image.

Many new drivers are men in their late 30s to 50s who come from the suburbs, like Chongming Island (County) and found themselves out of work in the financial crisis. Some worked as drivers but driving around Shanghai is a lot more complicated than driving in the outskirts.

"We have to admit those drivers we've employed this year are not as capable as older ones, even much worse," says Gao Liming from the public relations department of Haibo Taxi Co, one of the biggest.

In the first half of 2009, Haibo has employed 860 new taxi drivers, 31 percent fewer than in 2008, when 1,250 were hired in the same period. Officials hope the smaller intake will improve the quality.

They have a long way to go.

Last Wednesday morning, Xu called a cab to take her boyfriend from home to his office. Five minutes later, the driver called back and asked her whether he should cross the Middle Ring Road to get to her home.

"I was so shocked that I didn't even know how to answer him. It's such a ridiculous question," says Xu. "How did he even get to the Middle Ring Road? I'm right next to the Inner Ring Road."

Her boyfriend gave directions to the driver, but 10 minutes later he called back, asking them to book another cab, saying, "I'm completely lost on the elevated road."

Xu found out the driver in his 40s is from Chongming County and has only been driving for two months.

Many passengers are used to giving drivers a destination, like a plaza, a hotel, or a landmark, rather than giving an exact address. Many people don't know street numbers.

People's Square, Huahai Road, Julu Road - many new drivers, it seems, draw a blank and must consult a map.

Passengers have been complaining for the last couple of years.

"Last year and the year before, the problem was mostly with fresh drivers from suburbs who don't know the city roads at all," says veteran cabbie surnamed Huang, who declined to give his full name. He has been driving for more than 20 years.

"Back then they were mostly young kids who could learn quite fast, but this year most of my new colleagues are much older," he says. Huang adds that many are sent out on the road before they can really learn the complicated road system.

Even eight years ago, says Huang, most cab drivers were Shanghai natives, but now it seems that most are from the suburbs.

The numerous construction sites for the Expo mean a lot of road changes and detours. That complicates things for new cabbies.

"Even an experienced driver like me runs into situations where construction blocks a road you used to take, and you have to figure out a different route," says Huang. "So it's tough for rookies who don't even live in the city."

Behind the wheel

Many rookie cabbies are middle-aged former drivers in the suburbs, such as 52-year-old Chen Lifa, who has been driving in Shanghai for just three weeks. He declines to name his employer.

After 10 years driving for an agricultural produce company in Nanhui area of Pudong, Chen was laid off last November. He regularly drove from the company's warehouse to a distribution center and always thought he would have steady work.

"I've never driven outside Nanhui," says Chen. "More precisely, I have seldom driven outside my regular 50-minute route."

Chen was a beneficiary of the city's policy to help the unemployed. He applied for a taxi driver job and studied a month for the test to get a driver's certificate.

He went to class three days a week for 12 sessions in all to learn traffic regulations and the road system; no easy thing for Chen and his older classmates. Many haven't cracked a book in years.

"It might sound easy for young people, but we have already lived half of our lives and it's really difficult to pick up books again. I don't remember the last time I studied for a test," says Chen.

The test covered landmarks and major roads like Nanjing Road and Chongqing Road, but that was just the basics.

It's tough work driving a Shanghai cab. Chen found himself with lower earnings than before, higher expenses and a lot more stress. "I have to pick up the city dialect," he says, "and I've been hearing complaints all the time."

He defends the newcomers.

"When a new driver tells you he doesn't know People's Square, it's not that he doesn't know the landmark, it means he doesn't know how to take a passenger there," he says.

It's hard to learn your way around in a changing city with so many small lanes, new highways, complicated intersections and traffic exchanges and constant construction.

Chen gets frustrated at his lack of knowledge. "That comes from practice and I have to work in order to practice and support my family."

In his first week, more than 10 passengers switched to another cab because he asked them, "Could you help directing me because I'm new at this?"

Sometimes when he takes the long way or the wrong way, he apologizes and reduces the fare.

In his first week he earned less than 500 yuan (US$73).

He's embarrassed he doesn't know the way, especially when passengers ask, "How can you not know?"

Chen has a coping strategy. He is especially friendly and tells passengers in advance that he's not familiar with the road and may need to consult a map or a friend. Many passengers are quite considerate when they're not in a rush, he says.

He keeps a map handy and tunes the radio to the traffic channel to learn about construction, traffic and road conditions. He also finds a helpful colleague or friend who knows the roads and will accept a quick phone call asking for directions.


London cabbies are famous for the exhaustive training required to get classic black taxi license. They need a mental map and it's said that certain parts of a successful cabbie's brain are larger than those of mere mortals.

Training courses can last for two years: Drivers must be able to get to a destination fast, without consulting a map or asking a dispatcher for help.

Unfortunately, training for Shanghai cabbies leaves much to be desired, and lack of training and experience appears to be the heart of the problem.

New drivers employed this year are less capable than older ones, admits Gao Liming from the public relations department of Haibo Taxi Co.

All drivers are required to pass a test to get a license. Then companies train them.

Haibo forms groups of rookies taught by veteran drivers. But they only get two days' training before they take to the road. Then they have three months' probation.

An HR official surnamed Xu from Dazhong Taxi Co, one of the city's four biggest taxi companies (the other three are Qiangsheng, Jinjiang and Bashi) says the company forms groups of five or six drivers, headed by a veteran driver.

"Some drivers don't even know how to get to the People's Square. It's unbelievable," says Zhang Xiao, a 24-year-old white-collar worker who often takes taxi.

He was shocked when that driver called older colleagues to ask directions. "It's not knowledge, it's common sense," Zhang says.

Now he tries to avoid drivers with license numbers beginning with 30 or 31, indicating they became drivers this year.

"I don't want to sit in a stopped car," he says, "watching the driver making calls or staring at GPS."


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