China Survival Tips: How to Hail a Shanghai Cab

taxi cab shanghai

The subtitle for this article was going to be “why won’t the taxi stop when the light is on and my hand is clearly waving in the air as if some stubborn intractable bee had embedded itself on my finger”.

Taxis in Shanghai can be a source of frustration. Maybe you’ve waited for what seemed like an eternity as cab after cab passed you by, or you mistakenly rode one at rush hour because you thought it’d be faster than taking the metro, only to agonizingly watch the seconds tick away as you miss your pressing appointment while stuck in traffic on the elevated road.

We sat down (in a taxi) to talk to a Real Shanghai Taxi Driver, and he told us everything we needed to know about how to get a taxi in Shanghai.

And now we’re sharing that treasure of knowledge with you.

1. Hail a cab at the right intersection

The more traffic at an intersection, the better. Seems like a no-brainer, right? Easier to get a cab, yes? Careful, though. Depends on which crossroads you’re at.

For example, a lot of roads in the Former French Concession are one-way, so you’re better off walking a bit further and finding another intersection with multiple lanes. Shanghai’s got some huge, six-lane intersections, too, but if the “intersection” is a single road feeding into the big one, there won’t be that many cabs willing to pick you up; they probably already have a fare and are looking to get out onto a bigger road.

2. Hail a cab far from the Shanghai metro

You are right in thinking that the busiest metro stations will also have the most taxis waiting outside, but that also means that they’ll also have the biggest crowds of people willing to elbow you in the throat, also scrambling to get hold of a Shanghai taxi. So don’t try to get a cab at Lujiazui, Xujiahui, People’s Square, the Railway Station, or wherever there’s heavy tourist and migrant worker traffic. Take the metro one stop further on, and try there instead.

3. Don’t hail a cab at a bus stop

This one has worked for us in the past, but our Real Shanghai Taxi Driver said that if you’re hailing a cab from a roadside bus station, they’ll assume your home probably isn’t that far away, and will just keep looking for a better fare. So we recommend showing convincing signs of desperation: A pleading look in your eyes, a frayed map clutched in your hands, tears and whimpers, if possible. It may make a driver pity you and stop. If he still ignores you, he probably thinks you’re giving him attitude, in which case, well, you’re already at a bus station. Can’t you just wait a bit longer?

4. Learn to spot the busy taxis

Ever wonder why there seem to be some taxis in Shanghai that just zoom past you, even when the little roof light is on? It’s infuriating, isn’t it? Here’s the skinny from our Real Shanghai Taxi Driver: if the roof light is green, and the light inside the cab is on, too, the cab is free. However, if the roof light is red, it means that the taxi is reserved by someone else. On the other hand, if the roof light is green and the inside meter is up with the light off, it could mean that he’s on his break, either on his way to lunch or to chat with other taxi drivers in their secret taxi driver code language. So don’t try and flag those taxis down. Well, you can still try; sometimes, this “rule” seems more like a “guideline.”

The most important takeaway from all this is the following: do not allow the feeling of impotent rage and frustration to overwhelm you as it takes longer and longer for you to get back to your cozy top-view apartment. If a taxi with an assortment of lights drives past you, merrily shining as if laughing at your misfortune, it’s not because they don’t like the look of your face; they’re either reserved or on their way to get some food. Nothing personal.

5. Get the contacts of local driers

This one might take a little research and a bit of smooth-talking, but did you know you can contact drivers directly if they work in your area? Chinese commuters do it all the time. Our Real ShanghaiTaxi Driver said that other drivers might be a bit hesitant to hand out their details to laowai because they expect awkward communication and unreasonable demands for pickups miles away from their operating area (presumably Yongkang Road). But if you know your area well enough to spot your regular day- and night-shift cabbies, and you have the ability to communicate with the driver in a friendly manner, you might just be able to get a few of your local taxis on standby.

6. Order a taxi on your phone

If the idea of having a cab driver see your WeChat moments freaks you out, try using Didi Chuxing to order a cab. A real cab with a real chain-smoking, world-weary, road warrior Shanghai Taxi Driver, not a pasty-faced teenager who became a certified DiDi just from watching a 15-minute video. WeChat has an option to use the service via your WeChat Wallet. If you prefer, you can also do it the old-school way and call the hotline at 12580.

Ivan Chao

Ivan is a Chinese teacher at That’s Mandarin Chinese Language School, and is experienced in teaching Mandarin to students of all ages. Read more of Ivan’s articles at That’s Mandarin.