I was again impressed by the construction boom in China even though this is my third time going back to Shanghai in less than one year. Even to the remote place of HuangShan (Yellow Mountain), there is a highway that shorten the trip from Shanghai to four hours from more than ten hours. So I decide to go there and do some hiking again.
The highway is well-paved and the bus going there, called 'Land Boeing' by the locals, is quite comfortable. This is different from the 12-hour journal I used to take that go through dangerous mountainous roads. The end of the highway is the city of HuangShan, which is one hour away from the foothill. Like everywhere else in China, the city is filled with new buildings and roads.
However, residents there are still poor. A strenuous tricycle ride of 15 minutes in the city only costs 2 Yuan (a quarter in US). People who earn a living by carrying 80 kilo of things up HuangShan, more than 1000 meter elevation gain, only get paid 35 Yuan (US$4.5) for one eight-hour trip. Those labor translates to about 1000 Yuan per month while a restaurant waitress earn about 600 Yuan. Two of us paid only 69 Yuan at the best restaurant in the city, which has nice food, ambience, and best location.
Surprisingly, many people there have cell phones due to ever-lowering cost of communication. This piece of technology enabled local taxi drivers to improve their productivity while reducing traffic and air pollution. This is what I am going to talk about.
It was 3pm when we finished the hiking and reached the trail end. It's still about 15 minutes drive away from the HuangShan Gate, where no taxi is allowed to enter except for taxis from one company that has special connections. Chinese are required to take the shuttle or taxi while foreigners can drive their own cars. We, being discriminated on our own land, hired one taxi to go to the scenic FeiCui valley about half hour away. We were told to share the ride with two other people who happen to go the same direction. However, as soon as we get out of HuangShan Gate where all taxis are allowed to operate, the driver points to another taxi and said:" This is my brother-in-law, he will take you from here." On the new car, we told the driver we need to go back to the city after a quick tour of the FeiCui valley. The driver hesitated a moment and then offered to take us there. I am a little surprised because it's late afternoon and he's likely to drive the one-hour return trip with an empty car.
Just before we finished the two-hour FeiCui valley tour, we called the driver and he's ready to pick us up at the exit. However, after a short drive, he stopped and asked us to switch to another car, whose driver is 'his cousin'. Finally, on the way to the city, we picked up another guy who's also going to the city.
I was a little puzzled and annoyed by the frequent change of cars and it seemed all taxis here are operated by one family network. However, I suddenly realized this is not a real family, but a distribued system for optimizing scheduling and carpooling, spontaneously made possible by cell phones.
The taxi inside HuangShan Gate definitely knows its competitive edges:
When the car reaches the HuangShan Gate, it loses the above two advantages. Therefore, it makes sense to give the passengers to other cars and go back for the next round. With a cell phone, the driver would be able to call other taxis to wait at the Gate. They may even charge those cars for delivering steady stream of customers.
At the FeiCui Valley, our driver probably contacted his network of collegues. His 'cousin' is someone who drove from the city in the morning and is in need of some customer for the return trip. By arranging us with that person, our driver probably charged a fee, or get the some favor next time he go to the city and need some customer back. Doing this improved the efficiency, reduced the traffic, saved much gasoline, and is good for the environment.
It's exciting those things are happening spontaneously at the grassroot level. This is a good thing as long as the customer has the right expectation (i.e. they will switch cars along the way) and compensated properly. It creates a win-win situation for both the taxi drivers and customers, which is how a free-market economy suppose to work. I was a little worried when he picked another guy on the way back to the city because he might have taken a detour. Although it's reasonable to carpool if the detour is short, I should be compensated for my waste of time accordingly, just like airport shuttle in US is less expensive than taxi. Luckily, I verified there is no detour.
Many people in Shanghai will probably think it not professional to stop along the way and switch cars. They will demand the driver to do it the 'right' way. But who said the professional way of doing things in Shanghai, which is imported from the West, is always the right way everywhere? When you are in HuangShan, you want to respect and appreciate their way of work and life. Moreover in this case, their way carries socio-economic benefits and thus should be the better way. In the end, it's a vacation. So instead of rushing from one scenic spot to the next, why not relax and learn about a village while the driver stops for the restroom?
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