Revealed: Why Beijing's Taxi Drivers Turn Down Paying Customers

By Justine Lopez, November 18, 2016

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Sometimes finding a taxi in Beijing can be frustrating. It’s safe to say that we’ve all been turned down by drivers multiple times. We've had empty taxis pass us by, been inexplicably shunned by drivers and had countless Didi requests ignored. 

We're decent paying customers. So why are Beijing’s taxi drivers passing us by? 

According to the first large-scale study of Beijing’s taxi drivers this isn’t just bad luck, Science reports. There is likely a very good reason taxi drivers turn us down: profit.   

Over 12,000 taxi drivers in the capital volunteered to participate in the study, which was conducted by Sihai Zhang and Zhiyang Wang, computer scientists at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei. Their goal was to identify the reasons why taxi drivers practice what the researchers call "passenger avoidance" – turning down paying customers.

The drivers handed over GPS records from a two month period, resulting in over two billion lines of data. At first glance, the information revealed nothing more than the beginning and end points of taxis' trips. However, after pouring over the data, the researchers speculated that some drivers were picking and choosing their customers very carefully.    

Unsurprisingly, drivers tend to gather in crowded places (e.g. train stations or stadiums) where there is a higher likelihood of someone needing a ride. However, the data also revealed that some shifus appear to be picky about the destinations they were willing to take passengers to

Drivers were far more likely to take people from one crowded area to another, and far less likely to travel to an unpopulated part of town. From this, Zhang and Wang speculated that these drivers were actually turning down paying customers in order to seek out those traveling to more popular areas. 

But is it a profitable strategy? 

Well, it turns out these drivers might be on to something. The researchers calculated that the top 25 percent of Beijing taxi drivers were earning an average of USD$80 a day – not too shabby. However, the bottom 25 percent were only making about USD$8 a day. 

When comparing the journeys taken by these two groups, the researchers concluded that the highest-earning drivers were those who were picky about choosing customers. Drivers who mainly travel between crowded destinations rake in much more money than those who pick up any old customer.

Top-earning taxi drivers in Beijing turn down one in every 12 potential customers. To put this in perspective, the researchers estimate that these drivers turn down USD0.75 with each rejected passenger. But this gamble appears to be paying off.

Car-hailing apps werren't included in the study (which, although published this month, was conducted in 2012). But similar strategies are likely to apply, so we all better get used to rejection. 

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