"Beijing Taxi" shows drivers' Olympic struggle


BEIJING -- Beijing has been working hard to clean up its image for the Olympics -- and in the eyes of one documentary filmmaker, its estimated 100,000 taxi drivers are suffering in the process.

Miao Wang, the director of "Beijing Taxi", followed the ups and downs of a group of taxi drivers since 2006 and captured not only the transformation of Beijing as it rushes towards modernity, but also the effect this has had on their lives.

"The project really kind of revolves around looking at the personal lives of three characters, who are taxi drivers, and through that show the changes going on in Beijing. And that whole project is framed around the Olympics," Miao said.

Beijing's taxi drivers, who will be the first to welcome foreign visitors arriving in Beijing for the Games, are having to adapt to new cars and higher prices.

Bai Jiwen, who features in the film and has been working as a taxi driver for 16 years, appreciates the comfort of the new cars but feels higher fares and improved public transport have taken a heavy toll on drivers.

"I used to drive a 'mian di' car years ago which was much cheaper and only cost one yuan per kilometer. Now taxis cost two yuan per kilometer. So there are fewer people taking taxis than before," he said, referring to a cheap, small van "noodle taxi".

"Also, the public transport like the subway and bus are cheaper than taking a taxi. We have definitely suffered some losses."

And business is unlikely to improve. Beijing's official Olympic Web site stated that the city aims to expand its current subway system to more than 550 kilometers (340 miles) by 2015, making it the longest underground network in the world.

Despite heavy traffic congestion, Beijingers are taking to the roads in their own cars more. In 2007 there were an estimated 3.1 million motor vehicles in Beijing and about 1,000 to 1,200 more are hitting Beijing's roads every day, according to Xinhua news agency.

As well as decreasing the need for taxis, the jams caused by these new cars on the roads do not help business.

Taxi drivers not only have to worry about the price of fuel going up but also the fees they have to pay the taxi companies.

Zhou Yi, a former taxi driver who also features in the film, quit his job after taxis were upgraded to the new model last year. He couldn't afford to maintain the new car and pay the increased fees demanded by the taxi company.

Zhou's health suffered when he was driving and he says that the companies make it hard for drivers to seek medical care.

"We don't seek medical treatment unless a problem is really serious. Once it becomes serious we have no choice but to buy medicine. But considering the amount of money we have to pay the taxi company, we dare not take time off even if we have a serious illness," said Zhou.

Some 500,000 new passengers are expected during the Olympics, but in the longer term, Beijing taxi drivers are unlikely to benefit from the city's facelift.

"Beijing Taxi" will be released in early 2009.