The quality of public transport in China varies dramatically depending on the city, like in all countries, but in Shanghai one must admit that public transport is very good. It’s crowded all right, and during rush hour you’re guaranteed to suffer from shoving, pushing and elbowing as if the coach in front of you was the last one available on Earth. Actually, subway trains run every 10 minutes, give or take, but those are a matter of discussion of another post.

Now, I want to tell you about taxis. Taxis in Shanghai have been both a blessing and a headache since I arrived in China, and you will hear many foreigners moan about the service as well. There are around 50,000 taxis (and counting) in Shanghai, and they belong to different companies, which you can identify by color: the little white vans (also called Expo taxi), the dark blue, the clear blue, the green ones and the maroon ones. They all charge 14 RMB when you hop in, and overall, aren’t too expensive. They’re fairly convenient, if you can withstand the penetrating smell of smoke. Yes, the little stickers that signal Do not smoke are for ornamental purposes only, it would seem.

The white-van taxis are the newest kind. They were put in circulation for the Shanghai Expo in 2010, and there must be around 4000 of them. They’re more environmentally friendly – as we know that China has been making a point of showing the international community that its 5 Year Plan means business – and the drivers of Expo taxis are equipped with basic English skills and a GPS, but don’t count on either of these points.

Maroon taxis are known to be the worst, they’re older and may or may not be legal. As a rule of thumb, you’re better off avoiding them. The blue ones and the green ones are normally okay.

You can flag down a taxi that has 空车 shinning in green, but they may or may not stop. How come, you ask? Well, here’s where empirical evidence comes in handy. Taxis are scarce during rush hours. This is very obvious, because most people commute then. At 6 pm, though, you won’t be able to get a cab, even if you see plenty of them empty, because taxi drivers are going for dinner. Frustrating, I know.

However, there’s an answer to your woes if you can read Chinese or if you have a Chinese friend with you. There’s a an app with which you can virtually flag down a taxi that is close to your location through bidding. The app 快的打车 (Kuài De DǎChe) available at http://www.kuaidadi.com/, pins your location and shows how many available taxis are around you. Of course, it only shows the taxis that are using this system, but I have tested it during peak hours and it has worked like magic. The app is available for 苹果版 PíngGuǒ Bǎn (Apple version) and 安卓版 ĀnZhuó Bǎn (Android version). Make sure you’re downloading the correct version, though. There is the 乘客 ChéngKè (passenger version) and the 司机 SīJī (driver version).

Through the app, you send a ping along with a proposed tip to attract a taxi. How much extra are you willing to pay to get a cab? 5 RMB? 10 RMB? Once a cab pings you back, you just have to wait. You can even call the taxi driver through the app to let him know where you’re standing or to ask how long it’ll take him to get to you.

Taxis flagged down this way will ask you to pay through Chinese paypal – 支付宝 ZhīFù Bǎo (Alipay). Bear in mind, though that only nationals of selected countries can apply for Alipay account. Registration will require your passport details, so if you’re not from an allowed country, you won’t be able to use it. If you don’t have an account, just hop in and make sure to let the driver know that he will be getting the promised tip that you originally posted. You can get a bit of yelling, but more often than not, the driver will agree to take you to your destination.