It occurred to my friends and I, as we were travelling in a convoy of taxis down a one-lane mountain road, that it was a bit odd that an afternoon of hiking would start with a ride in a cab. But Hong Kong is an odd place. With a remarkably few private vehicles for such a large city—less than one out of five people here own a car—taxis play a particularly important role in shuttling people around town. I can’t help but compare the culture of taxis here with that of Montreal, which also has an abundance of cabs, but whose approach to them is markedly different.
Hong Kong has more than 18,000 taxis, compared to Montreal’s 4,500, but this works out to the same per-capita ratio of about one taxi for every 400 people. (New York, by contrast, has one taxi for every 600 people, though this doesn’t reflect the fact that most cabs stay on Manhattan and neglect the outer boroughs.) In both cities, taxis are owned by a mix of companies and individuals; drivers work long hours, earn only modest wages and sometimes suffer from stress and neuroses caused by working long, solitary hours for oft-ungrateful customers. But the similarities end there.
The biggest difference is demographic. The vast majority of taxi drivers in Montreal are immigrants or ethnic minorities, just like in most other large North American cities. Many are Haitian. In Hong Kong, though, I doubt there are any non-Chinese cabbies. The way that taxis are regulated by the government differs sharply too. While cabs in both cities are licenced, Montreal takes a far more lax approach in determining the model, colour and livery of taxis — a taxi can be pretty much any type of vehicle, and most drivers opt for standard-issue Toyota Camrys. The only indication it’s a taxi is the sign on the roof.
In Hong Kong, by contrast, cabs are all customized Toyota Crowns, with red livery for taxis serving urban areas, green for those serving the New Territories and blue for cabs on Lantau Island. Like New York’s yellow cabs, they give a certain consistent hue to the streets, not to mention a certain sense of place. It’s always a mild surprise to go to Yuen Long or Tai Po and find that the taxis are green, such is the extent to which the colour red can be associated with traffic in Hong Kong.
Tags: Hong Kong, Montreal, Taxis, Traffic