Friday, October 10, 2008

The Worst Taxis In The World And Other Taxi Stories

The Survey vs. Experience

A few weeks ago, AFP reports the result of The Expat's survey that rated Malaysia as the "worst among 23 countries in terms of taxi quality, courtesy, availability and expertise". I knew from experience that taking a cab in KL wasn't a pleasant experience, but I wasn't aware it was that bad.

During our last trip to Kuala Lumpur, we dreaded the thought of taking a cab to get around the city because of our previous experiences. This is exactly the reason why we took the train in getting to the Petronas Towers from Pudaraya, hence part of the post:
Getting to the Twin Towers from Pudaraya is simple enough via train. Of course, in terms of speed, nothing beats taking a cab. Unfortunately, just like in some other Asian countries, foreigners are easily taken advantage of -- the taxi drivers insist on a fixed price and refuse to use their meter. This makes you appreciate Singapore, where taxi drivers almost always charge by the meter. (The 8-seater Maxi Cab would sometimes insist on a fixed charge especially during peak hours in tourist spots). In fairness, albeit in a misconstrued notion thereof, the Malaysian cab drivers do the same thing to locals.
On that same visit to KL, we had no choice but to take a cab to get to the Islamic Arts Museum and the National Mosque. As expected, the taxi driver insisted on a flat rate and since we didn't want to wait indefinitely by pinning our hopes in finding an honest driver, we agreed to his demands.

We were about to find out that our cab driver wasn't only shrewd but creative as well. Somehow, he found a way to take a longer route, maybe to give us the impression that it was well worth what we paid for. Of course, during that time, there was no certain way for us to find out since no one among the three of us passengers knew the way.

But then, the good Samaritan who drove us back to our hotel not only took a different route that cut our travel time by more than half, but also charged us by the meter. I was just glad that there were still good taxi drivers out there.

Noli vs. Zenny

Noli, an IT professional who works in here in Singapore, after reading the same AFP article, shared with me his story from the Philippines.

"The situation with taxi drivers in the Philippines is also bad," he begins. "But I'd like to believe that's only true in the country's capital, Metro Manila."

"What do you mean?" I ask.

"Well, it's not as bad when you go to the other cities such as Davao, down south or even Baguio, up north. In those places they always charge by the meter and the drivers are kind enough to give you your change, no matter how small."

"Maybe it's true for other countries, that it's worse in the capitals," I opine.

"Maybe. But you know what? I once made the mistake of venting out my complaints against taxi drivers to the wrong person."

I raised my eyebrows and nodded a bit, urging him on.

"It happened during a lunch conversation, such as what we're having right now. My opening line was, 'The government should do something about those crooks disguised as taxi drivers! I don't get what the meter was for if the drivers kept insisting on a flat rate. And they should be driving buses or jeepneys if they refuse to take passengers to their destinations if it's not convenient for them!'

"The person I was talking to -- her name is Zenny by the way -- retaliated, 'Did it ever occur to you that they have mouths to feed too?'.

"My reply was something like, 'Yes, but do they want to feed their family with money obtained through a means akin to stealing? Besides, if they're shrewd enough not to give your change, surely they must be keen enough to know that not all people who take taxis are rich?'

"Zenny countered, 'Do you know that most taxi drivers don't own the vehicles they drive and that they only end up pocketing a portion of the day's earnings? Most of what they get goes to the boundary.'"

Noli explained that the term boundary simply means the fixed amount that the driver needs to pay the taxi owner (also called operator) per day. The taxi driver gets to keep whatever amount he earns in excess of this. Of course, he could end up negative if he fails to earn the boundary because he'll have to pay the same amount even if he earns less than this. The boundary is agreed upon by the driver and the operator during the start of their business relationship, and it usually depends on how old or new the taxi is.

"The newer the vehicle, the higher the boundary," Noli concluded.

"Ok, so what was your reply to Zenny?"

"That it doesn't justify their cheating! And that if the drivers from other cities could afford to give you back your change, then there's no reason why those crooks couldn't!

"Zenny pleaded her case by answering me with another question, 'Do you also know that if it so happens that they damage the taxi, the cost is taken out of their earnings?' .

"To which I replied, because I couldn't stop myself from being a wiseass, 'Then all the more reason for them to stop driving like madmen right? When they drive, it seems as if they own the road all to themselves! They're not even concerned about maintaining the condition of the taxi because they don't own it.'

"I wasn't expecting a reply but Zenny had an answer to that too. She said, 'But that's only because they need to get as many passengers as they can within the day so they'll have some money to bring home.'

"I replied, 'Yeah and in doing so they endanger the lives of their passengers and other drivers on the road as well.'

"'I'm sure you know how dangerous it is to drive here in Manila during the night,' Zenny offered.

"'Well, I hope those crooks learn from their fellow thieves!' I didn't mean to sound so cruel but the words had already come out of my mouth.

"It would be several months before Zenny and I spoke again. Her last words before she walked out on me that lunchtime, 'I think that's so rude of you to say. Not all taxi drivers are as bad as you think they are. By the way, my father is a cabbie.'"

Driver vs. Passenger

Over the week, I've asked three cabbies what things they don't like most about the passengers they pick up. Here are some of their common answers:
  • Passengers who don't pay. It's hard to believe that this happens here in Singapore, but according to all three cabbies, they experienced it at least once. In all instances, the passengers asked them to wait while they get money from their house or from someone, but they never came back.

  • Rude passengers. Such as those who get mad when the driver asks if they have a preferred route to their destination.

  • Passengers who can't tell their left from their right. Or those who give instructions where to turn a little too late.

  • Passengers who litter or puke inside their cabs. The cabbie has to end up cleaning the mess, losing valuable time. One driver says that at least a few of his passengers paid a bit extra for the trouble.
I must admit it's not the best topic to talk about with the drivers. It doesn't make their day.

Most of us have ridden taxis at least a few times in our lives. Below are a few things passengers don't like about some taxi drivers.
  • Cabbies who don't know how to drive. Er, how can that be? We're referring to taxi drivers who swerve their vehicles as if they were acrobatic planes, hit the breaks like they want to score a goal from the center line, and jump the humps as if they were doing a daredevil stunt.

  • Rude drivers. The good news, and the general consensus between our circle of friends, is that there are relatively few nasty cabbies here in Singapore. Unfortunately for us -- a friend and I, we had an encounter with one during our ride from Shenton Way to Beach Road. We were telling the driver we wanted to get off in front of a certain building but before we even finished explaining that to him, he raised his voice and said there was no other taxi stop down the road so we had to get off at the next one. We tried to reason with him but seeing there was no use as he resorted to raising his voice several decibels higher, we got off. We ended walking 5 minutes before we got to our destination.

  • Drivers who don't know how to get to your destination. Again, there aren't many of them here. This is especially true nowadays since most cabs are equipped with GPS devices to aid the drivers.

  • Drivers who don't smell too good. Okay, that was toned down a bit. But it can be a totally unpleasant experience to come across one, an encounter that you gives a terrible headache and leaves you wishing that all the windows could be opened so you can breathe properly. Reminds me of the song from Aladdin -- A Whole New World -- where part of the lyrics says, Hold your breath, it gets better.
De Niro vs. Foxx

Along with the big stars in hollywood, the taxi has shared the spotlight in quite a number of movies. Well, this is also true of movies from Hong Kong and Bollywood. But the first movie that comes to mind is Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver starring Robert De Niro. Michael Manne's Collateral starring Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise also comes to mind.

I wasn't born yet when Taxi Driver was shown, but the film being chosen by Time Magazine as one of the 100 best films of all time should be another reason to watch the movie, if Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese aren't enough.

As for Collateral, the plot and theme are compelling enough and Foxx's acting is praiseworthy. If those aren't sufficient reasons to watch the movie, along with Tom Cruise's star presence, maybe the film being voted as the 9th best film set in Los Angeles in the last 25 years by a group of Los Angeles Times writers and editors could convince you of the film's quality.

To close off this entry, below's part of Travis Bickle's narration (thoughts spoken aloud, actually) in Taxi Driver:
All the animals come out at night.

Whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies.

Sick, venal.

Someday a real rain will come and wash this scum off the streets.

I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, to Harlem.

I don't care. Don't make no difference to me.

If does to some. Some won't even take spooks. Don't make no difference to me.

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