a taxi in downtown Shanghai can be frustrating, especially during rush hour or when it rains, and new mobile phone applications seem an ideal solution to the problem.
But in addition to helping passengers find a cab, they are also causing controversy.
Popular software such as Didi Taxi and Kuaidi Taxi allows users to enter their locations and intended destinations, and any extra fare they are willing to pay. The information is relayed to taxi drivers' mobile phones. By tapping a button, drivers can accept the call and their license plate number is sent back to the passenger.
"I think it offers great convenience and it saves me a lot of time from having to wait on the sidewalk," said Catherine Jiang, a Shanghai public relations manager.
It sounds simple. And for most passengers, it is.
Into drivers' pockets
But the city government isn't happy because the system undercuts its authority over the city's fleet of 50,000 taxis operated by more than 130 city-owned taxi companies.
Extra charges paid by booking passengers, which generally range between 10 yuan (US$1.6) and 20 yuan but can run as high as 50 yuan, go directly into drivers' pockets, not government coffers.
The municipal government sets minimum fares for taxis.
People can also book a cab through the dispatch centers of the government-owned taxi companies, some of which recently reinstated a 4 yuan charge for booking to cover dispatch costs.
But many passengers prefer the mobile phone apps because the dispatch centers are often slower and because they simultaneously contact all drivers using the apps, regardless of which company they drive for.
"These new apps are indeed convenient for the public," acknowledged Sun Jianping, director of the Shanghai Transport and Port Administration, which supervises the taxi industry.
"We simply cannot deny the newest technologies."
But he said taxi drivers should not charge extra fares for rides booked via the apps, even if passengers agree to pay them.
High and dry
There are about 100,000 cabbies in Shanghai in what is considered a relatively low-paid job.
There are instances of drivers who agree to pick up a passenger then get a higher offer and leave the first booker high and dry.
There are also instances of passengers finding an available cab before their booked taxi arrives, leaving the cabbie without a fare.
Still, the new system has become so popular that one Shanghai cabbie was found installing more than five of the booking apps in his three cell phones, and that was in addition to normal communication with his company's dispatch center.
The cabbie said 20 percent of his daily 40 fares now came from app bookings.
However, he caught the attention of the media and then his company, and he was ordered to remove some of the mobile devices for safety reasons.
Concerns have been raised that cabbies busy arranging personal bookings are distracted from driving and could cause accidents.
The city government is considering a new regulation for taxis that may cover the issue of app bookings, traffic administration officials said.
It's not an issue unique to Shanghai.
In the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, traffic authorities have banned the use of the apps. But the reality on the streets tells a different tale.
Taxi drivers there are said to carry two mobile phones: one running the apps and one without in case they are pulled in for inspection.
Over the weekend, Beijing released a new regulation reiterating its ban on taxis charging extra for mobile app bookings.
It is also to set up a unified booking platform to cover all taxi companies and take orders through phones, websites and mobile apps.
Zhao Dong, chief operations officer at the Kuaidi Taxi mobile apps firm, said his company hadn't been approached by transportation authorities over the extra fares.
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