Friday, November 16, 2012

Street Level

With my new teaching gig now progressing smoothly, I can breathe easier and write you more often. It feels great to be back with you.

Of course, because of my new teaching gig I am riding in taxis no fewer than 4 times each week. My taxi rides have given me a whole new appreciation for traffic, drivers and the idea of getting around in general.

Riding around on a bus helps make one blissfully unaware of just how zany traffic is in Wuhan. Riding in a cab has the exact opposite effect. Traffic and driving skills are much more noticeable when you are sitting closer to ground level, with only a thin sheet of metal and a few pounds of plastic between you and that oncoming car. I doubt that any of these cabs have any type of airbag protection.  

It seems no one holds to a lane. Many take up two lanes and take a middle lane to make a turn. When merging into oncoming traffic, that oncoming traffic is of no concern to the driver making the turn. It appears to be assumed that no one really wants to hit anyone. Buses weave around with just as much enthusiastic alacrity as do compact cars.

Driving here is done in the spirit of ‘whatever will put me ahead of everyone else’. Not quite sure why everyone wants to be ahead of everyone else, because with all the cars jockeying for first place they end up bottlenecking at the next obstruction and no one gets anywhere. Nevertheless drivers tend to make lanes where there aren’t any, squeeze 3 cars into 2 lanes and everybody inches forward with the greatest of synchronicity.   

If I were to take the bus to my teaching gig I would only ride 11 stops; about 35 to 45 minutes. Taking a taxi takes about an hour because the taxi can take ‘shortcuts’: tunnels under major intersections and roundabouts. The shortcuts are convenient in the sense that they allow the car to avoid the red-light gang up - inching forward with all the other cars and pedestrians bold enough to weave among the stationary vehicles. They do not work in the sense that, once away from the intersection or roundabout the cars all have to merge together again. I suppose one could say that is a more legitimate reason for traffic jams.

I’ve written before about how taxi drivers tend to cheat foreigners by offering them a flat rate to their destination. Usually that ‘flat rate’ is much more than the actual cost of the trip as calculated by the meter. Or, the driver will take the longest route possible to the destination, thus incurring a fat fare. Neither of those ‘cheats’ are possible anymore.

The cars are now equipped with cameras and two way radios. The cameras record whether there is a passenger onboard. Woe to the driver that does not engage his meter with a fare plainly visible on camera. If the driver is taking the longest route possible the radio will squawk, whoever at the other end asking the driver where he/she is going and what the fare’s destination is.

Maybe it has to do with my ongoing progress in learning Chinese. At least a little. But so far, no driver has tried to cheat me when going back and forth to the New School.

Since I’ve started taking taxis on a 4-times weekly basis, I’ve only had 2 women who were drivers. If my limited experience into the wonderful world of cab riding bears any significance to the statistic I can conclude that taxi driving is, or has been till now a male dominated profession, with women only just breaking into it (braking into it – pardon the pun).

A distinct difference between the men and women who chauffer me back and forth is that the men seem to want to converse. The drivers who are female are content to know my destination and, with grim determination, focus on the road, getting me there as fast as possible.

Most of the drivers ask me the standard questions: what country am I from, where is my family, how much money do I earn, how tall I am… ect. One driver in particular, a rather attractive man, asked me if I was married, if I had a boyfriend, if I wanted a boyfriend. ‘NO’ to all of the above and double “NO!” to the last one. After that he turned up the radio and we conversed no more.

All of this taxi riding has made me wonder if I should consider buying my own mode of transport. I wouldn’t want to drive a car in this traffic. Nor do I want the expense of owning and maintaining a vehicle. But I wouldn’t mind a little battery powered scooter. Word has it one does not need a license to ride one. Wuhan has incorporated bike lanes on all major thoroughfares and battery powered scooters are allowed on them. Motor scooters are not. If I bought a batt-scooter I would not have to worry so much about traffic, especially if I just stick to the bike paths or ride on the sidewalks. 

I’ll give that more thought when winter is over. Wouldn’t want to be that exposed to the elements and I certainly wouldn’t ride in rain, snow or slush. So, for now, it is taxi after taxi.       

After every frenetic ride through town I stagger out of the cab. I have to coax my legs back into action because I sit so clenched up. You would too if a double decker bus was forcing itself into your lane on your side of the car and the taxi you’re riding in is determined to not allow the bigger vehicle to take its lane.

All of this makes me wonder: What does all that driving in adverse traffic conditions do to the drivers’ nerves? And… all of the taxis I’ve ridden in so far are standard shift. I wonder how the drivers’ left leg feels after pumping a clutch in that kind of traffic for twelve hours?   


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