“Taxi driver, be my shrink for the hour,” croons Frank Ocean poignantly to a cabbie in his tearjerker track Bad Religion. But while Frank may feel like confiding in a cabbie, those of us in KL might be more wary. The website LondonCabs.co.uk recently rated KL’s taxi drivers the worst in the world. Our cabbies have gained a reputation for being unfriendly, rude and cutthroat. Some don’t follow the metre; a few drive like extras from a Fast and Furious movie while the creepier ones make Robert De Niro’s disturbed Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver look like a saint. Recent news of taxi driver strikes over the free GO-KL bus service has done nothing to improve their public image either.

The most common complaint amongst passengers about taxi drivers is overcharging and their refusal to use the metre. “It’s infuriating when you have to rush somewhere and you know the fare is not as expensive as quoted by the drivers,” laments taxi-frequenting journalist Susan, who cites the city centre, Subang and Puchong as hotspots for this illegal touting behaviour. My own expensive experiences echo Susan’s grievances: the most ludicrous demand I’ve personally encountered was RM70 from Doubletree Hilton along Jalan Ampang to PJ one night. So far, so stereotypical. But what do we really know of the people behind the wheel of those red and white Protons?

Azizah, a part time taxi driver from Bangsar, concedes that many of her peers take part in touting. “The Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) is becoming stricter with its laws and guidelines, but some drivers are still not afraid,” she opines. “They are willing to take the chance because they know they can earn back the money when they return.” Azizah also reveals that other, legitimate drivers largely steer clear of those hotspots due to their isolated locations and woeful traffic. Nevertheless, she believes passengers should take on a more proactive role in combating illegal touting. “You [the passenger] must remember the taxi’s number plate as well as the date and time when making a complaint [by texting SPAD’s 15888 hotline],” she advises.

“Times are hard,” he sighs – words underpinned by the hard facts of KL’s rising cost of living

According to the Ministry of Tourism, there have been 20 complaints from tourists alone from January to August this year. I speak to another cabbie, Yunesh, about the temptation of touting. “Times are hard,” he sighs – words underpinned by the hard facts of KL’s rising cost of living. According to an Economist Intelligent Unit report in February, KL is now 83 percent as expensive as New York, with weaker earning power in comparison. When I hail Yunesh’s cab in the Tropicana city area, he turns on the metre, but admits that he doesn’t always go by the book. “You can’t expect me to wait an hour for a passenger to come around and then charge RM3.30 for a drop-off that is just a few minutes away; it’s just common courtesy.”

In 2009, the government announced that the flag-off fare for taxis had increased from RM2 to RM3 while 10 cents would be charged for every 115 metres instead of the previous distance of 150m. However, for Yunesh, it’s not enough. Taking into account petrol charges, his daily profit amounts to about RM100, but the hours go beyond those of a regular office job. “I miss my family, my children especially since they’re asleep by the time I get home,” he confides. “Long hours also mean I am unable to catch the latest movies with my friends.”

A further significant expense faced by taxi drivers is the permit. Azlan is one of several drivers who complains about this to me. “Last month, I paid the company a RM5,000 down-payment for this car with nearly RM70 a day in repayments over five years,” the new cab driver tells me. A former factory worker, Azlan maintains he still makes a profit on a daily basis, though he refuses to disclose the exact amount. Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen recently discussed the possibility of issuing individual permits to taxi drivers in order to boost their income, but Azlan remains pessimistic.

A new app for smartphones offers a hopeful development for both sides

While solutions that satisfy both passengers and drivers seem elusive, a new app for smartphones offers a hopeful development for both sides. The MyTeksi app, which launched in June, allows registered users to input their location as well as the intended destination. The system then picks the nearest registered taxi within a three-minute timeframe (although the driver retains the right to decline the offer). For the purpose of this article, I installed the free MyTeksi app for the iPhone. Once my request was processed, the cab driver’s name, mobile number, number plate and estimated time of arrival appeared onscreen while a separate text message was received as well with the same information.

Although there have been mixed reviews of MyTeksi, there are currently around 600 taxi drivers signed up to the system. When I tried it for myself, I was quite pleased with the service, as it seemed easier than calling up Sunlight or Public Cab, neither of which guarantee a confirmed booking. My taxi driver Zul was on time and he told me that he liked how he could contact passengers directly through MyTeksi, instead of relying on an operator at the call centre as a go-between. Conversely, Zul’s only gripe with the service was the need to shell out for a Samsung smartphone in addition to a RM60 SIM card that facilitates MyTeksi.

The cab conundrum in the city is definitely far from ideal; especially with trust levels on both sides are at an all-time low. “I dread looking for a taxi,” admits Indonesia’s Adem, who has been studying and working in KL for the past four years. “I always have the suspicion that they are going to rip me off.” But not all taxi drivers want to cheat their passengers. Many just want to make ends meet, while some moonlighters look to generate a little extra income. Then there are those drivers, like Dennis, who drive for the fun of it. Dennis is a retired nautical engineer who tells me he takes taxi shifts to pass the time. “My wife can’t stand me at home all the time,” laughs the well-travelled senior citizen.

Dennis rents his friend’s taxi and enjoys the stimulating conversation of his passengers. “I love talking to people from different walks of life,” he says. “But I hate it when people just jump into the car, blurt the destination and fall silent throughout the trip. It makes me feel like nothing more than a plain old driver.” Drivers like Dennis remind me that there’s no need for an “us versus them” mentality. This is our shared country, economy and problematic transport system. At the end of the day, empathy and respect between passenger and driver should never take a back seat to anything else.

The names of interviewees have been changed.

Photos: Creative Commons iFovea and Kojach