If you visit Hefei, capital of Anhui province, don't be surprised if you see an elegantly dressed woman on the back of a dilapidated motorcycle ridden by a bruiser. Very likely, she just could not get a cab.
A motorcycle taxi takes a passenger along Linquan Road, one of the busiest streets in Hefei, capital of Anhui province. These unofficial taxis are popular because they can zip between all the cars stuck in traffic. Ma Qibing / for China Daily
Traffic congestion is well documented in first-tier cities such as Beijing, where the average commute from home to work takes 52 minutes.
It is only 28 minutes in second-tier Hefei, but when cabs are stuck in traffic, people who need to get somewhere quickly are stymied.
Enter the freelance motorcycle taxi, which can zip between cars idling in the clogged traffic lanes.
Lu Yu, a teacher from Bengbu, also in Anhui province, discovered this late last year when he was on a short business trip to Hefei.
He could not find a cab to take him from Hefei University of Technology to his hotel. All the ones he saw were occupied, but motorcyclists kept passing him, asking whether he needed a ride.
"No, I'd rather take a taxi," he said. "You won't catch one!" one motorcyclist shouted.
"Twenty minutes later, I realized that he might be right," Lu said. And so he took his only choice for a ride to the hotel.
He was scared. The motorcycle was "crazily speeding" in the rain, he said, and ignored several red traffic lights - both common complaints about motorcyclists. Then he was startled to pay the same fare as he would have for a standard cab.
"We charge the price for a good reason," said Han Rui, a 29-year-old motorcyclist who carries passengers every day to earn a living. "Taxis are clearly more comfortable, but they are hard to catch. Part of the reason is that many are stuck in traffic.
"If you are in a rush, you'd better go with us," he said. "Taxis can easily get trapped in a traffic jam, which is very common in the city. We, however, can shuttle along easily despite the long line of cars."
Nobody knows how many of Hefei's 49,707 motorcycles do taxi duty. They are not registered differently from private-use motorcycles, and are not marked. The cost of the service is usually negotiated before the trip starts - there is no meter, as on standard cabs - but the fares are comparable.
Yin Xiaoqing, 25, has been living in London for three years, but she still remembers her traffic trials in Hefei in 2007, when two flyover streets (overpasses) were being built and work was being done on several main surface roads.
Yin taught English through a training school, and the job often required her to get from one student to another, sometimes kilometers away, in 30 minutes. After arriving late several times because of unexpected traffic jams, she hired a motorcyclist to pick her up.
Motorcycle cabs were not as common as today, so Yin kept one rider's mobile phone number to use when she needed a ride.
"It was funny to see Yin sitting on the back of a motorcycle," said Qiao Jing, one of her colleagues. "It looked like a female member of gangland. But many of us started using them to arrive in class on time. Now many of us ride motorcycles or electric bicycles ourselves."
Han Rui started picking up fares on his motorcycle a year after Yin became a steady passenger. At the time, most motorcycle taxis gathered downtown, where traffic often was at a standstill. But now riders can find fares at main street corners, school gates and residential districts. The traffic problems are widespread.
"Our busiest hours are during commuting hours and mealtime," Han said. "People rush to work or to fancy restaurants for a gathering. It is also the time that traffic jams are most serious and we can show our advantage best - we're fast!"
Chen Jinshui, who drives a standard taxi in Hefei, said he feels pressure from his passengers from time to time.
" 'Hurry up' is something I hear most from passengers," he said, "but I also feel bad about this. How can I hurry up when I have a queue of cars stuck in front of me?"
'City has changed'
Chen has been a cabbie for more than seven years. He and his family grew up as farmers in southern Hefei, overlooking Chaohu Lake, but in 2006 their land was designated for development into the Binhu district and they needed a new way of earning money.
The district, about 196 square kilometers, was designed for 1.2 million residents. The construction started in 2006, and people began moving in two years later. It is becoming increasingly developed, having city administrative centers, schools and hospitals.
"The city has changed a lot during the past several years," Chen said. "When I started driving, there were no flyover highways. Now there are four. I cannot imagine how terrible the traffic jams would be if there were no flyover streets today."
Two additional overpasses are being built, and since 2006 the city also has constructed many underground crossroads, which also help keep traffic moving. Still, traffic jams up from 5 pm to 7 pm at the flyover on Jinzhai Road, which was the city's busiest street in the 1990s.
"I usually play the radio in my cab," Chen said, "and I tune to the channel that tells stories all day so my passengers will focus on the stories instead of the traffic jam. Everyone is rushing to their destinations in the long queue, yet there is not much we can do."
Binhu is about 12 kilometers from downtown, and a new bus line - Bus Rapid Transit No 1 - started service a few months after the district opened in 2007. Three additional bus routes now serve Binhu, and the district's own shuttle bus started running in October.
"At that time, there were few people on the bus," said Zhang Xu, 25, whose family bought a house in Binhu in 2008.
On a Saturday afternoon last month, the line of people waiting for the No 1 bus reached to the top stairs of the bus station, which meant passengers had to wait for several buses to come through before they could board.