What’s up with the cab drivers with the multiple phones on the dashboard?
Dear Mr. Know-It-All,
Sometimes I get into a taxi and it’s like I’ve entered some kind of airplane cockpit. What’s up with the cab drivers with the multiple phones on the dashboard? — Taxi tales
Taxis with the high-tech communications array are known as baht zeet dic si, 20-percent-discount taxis. They’re syndicates of roving taxi drivers, who operate a complex network of not-entirely-legal discount taxi services.
Here’s how it works: you’re after a long-distance (over $50) taxi ride. You call a conveniently provided number, and a taxi driver picks up your call. With his array of phones he broadcasts your location throughout his network, percolating the news from cab to cab. The word spreads. The message is out. 15 phone calls and five minutes later, a driver arrives to pick you up—and he knocks 20 percent off the meter price.
These men are known to taxi drivers as “car kings,” and if you get into a cab with one of them he’ll be taking orders and spreading the word for your entire journey. They’re hugely in demand: good luck finding one at the 5pm shift change. Some passengers ask for a receipt and claim the difference and Hong Kong trundles happily, though not entirely legally, onwards.
The discount taxi movement began in the early 2000s, as the financial downturns, SARS and then pretty much everything else hit Hong Kong hard. Taxi drivers saw their profits declining and hit on a solution: discounts. By clubbing together they could guarantee that everyone got extra work, and all they had to do was buy a few more phones.
As this is the startup issue, here’s a startup taxi app that could be handy for non-Cantonese speakers: Taxiwise. You book your taxi through the app, and they translate it into Chinese for you: no TALKING SLOWLY AND LOUDLY AND STILL IN ENGLISH necessary. The app is in beta now, and about to launch on iPhone and Android.
And what, you ask, about all the bobbleheads? That’s a whole other question, for a whole other time…
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