Today I was riding in a taxi, as I often do, and I said to the driver just drop me off along here where you see the driveway down into the basement garage car park. I quickly realised the driver didn’t stop so I just said just stop anywhere along here please. Now I know that often there are a lot of cars parked along this stretch of road and taxis can’t always stop so I wasn’t too concerned when we travelled still further. Then when we did stop, the driver asked “Is here OK”? By this time I was thinking anywhere to get out would be better than nowhere.
Today I was riding in a taxi, as I often do, and I said to the driver just drop me off along here where you see the driveway down into the basement garage car park. I quickly realised the driver didn’t stop so I just said just stop anywhere along here please. Now I know that often there are a lot of cars parked along this stretch of road and taxis can’t always stop so I wasn’t too concerned when we travelled still further. Then when we did stop, the driver asked “Is here OK”? By this time I was thinking anywhere to get out would be better than nowhere. “Yes this is fine”, I said, and paid the bill. He did kindly offer to help me walk back but really this stretch of street is pretty straightforward so I didn’t need help.
Now I had to walk back about a hundred meters or so which was no big deal, but it gave me a moment to ponder on why this had happened, particularly because I do this every day and quite often it seems drivers just don’t understand where I want them to stop. Like most drivers in Auckland, and I think more than anywhere else in New Zealand, English was not this driver’s first language. But it wasn’t as if he couldn’t converse at all in English. Believe me I know how frustrating it is when you end up with a driver who simply cannot communicate. This guy could communicate, but it was as if my words just didn’t register.
On another occasion with a different driver I think, we were going along and I decided that I wanted to stop quickly at a dairy that is part of a block of shops we were about to go past. So I just asked the driver to quickly pull in at the block of shops coming up on the left. The driver sort of grunted and I assumed he understood, but when we didn’t slow down and went through the next roundabout, I realised we were way past those shops. I asked the driver why he hadn’t stopped at the shops and I could tell by his response that he simply knew nothing of what I meant.
These situations are not unusual, particularly in Auckland. I suppose we have to accept the reality that kiwis who speak English don’t seem to want to drive taxis. So we have a lot of drivers for whom English is a second language. But I am convinced that the problem I am referring to is not simply one of poor language. I have met plenty of drivers whose English is bad but who somehow still make the effort to communicate and engage, and I’m ok with that because we live in a multicultural world, and you can at least have a basic conversation.
The problem I am referring to is hard to describe but you know it when you find it. The driver is driving the car alright but seems to be completely disconnected from the job. Conversation breaks down because the responses you get which may still be in reasonably good English just don’t make any sense. It is as if the driver knows the words but not their meaning.
There is also a certain worldliness that is increasingly lacking in the industry. I have always believed that there is more to driving taxis than just taking people to a specified destination. Drivers are often expected to know about places to go, perhaps most important for visitors, such as where is a good restaurant nearby. There are many reasons why drivers need to be able to converse in a meaningful way with the passengers. I remember once getting hungry one late night in Brisbane and I had no idea where to go to get something to eat. I could have got over it but in the end I gave in. I called a cab and asked the driver to take me to where I could get a decent burger. I don’t know what I would have done if that driver didn’t know what a good burger was or where we could get one, but we drove to a late night place and I got a good feed, which put me in a much better mood to go to sleep.
My favourite burger place in Auckland for many years has been Al and Pete’s in Parnell. There was a time when every taxi driver knew where it was. But not anymore. I almost always have to tell them. But I don’t mind that so much. So typically I’ll say ok we’re going to such and such a place, and on the way I want to stop at Al and Pete’s which is a takeaway place at the top of Ayre Street on Parnell Road. Now that’s clear enough I think, but increasingly I find drivers just don’t understand, and so it then falls to me to find some other way to describe where I want to go.
I often wonder whether the problem I am describing affects blind people more because the drivers might be used to people pointing and using other visual signals, and of course that’s not what we do. But even so, these guys deliver a public service and blind people are part of the public. Is it too much to ask to just communicate in plain English?
The Taxi Federation was in the news last weekend saying that the recession has resulted in a decline in takings, and ultimately taxi fares may have to go up.
I already spend a fortune on cabs and perhaps that’s just the way it is. I realise that it’s great to have a fleet of people out there just waiting for my call. I know that the guy who turns up at a moment’s notice to drive me where I want to go, that guy has bills to pay and has to make a living too. So I accept that in the end prices may have to go up and I may have to pay more.
But I would feel better about that if the taxi industry showed more commitment to delivering a proper service. We all need reliable transport, and often people with disabilities, particularly blind people, need a reliable taxi service more than most. In obtaining their license, drivers should not only have good local area knowledge, and I don’t just mean roads, but they should be able to demonstrate an ability to actually communicate meaningfully. I do wonder sometimes how some drivers have got their license. I don’t expect a driver to debate the finer points of politics or nuclear physics with me, but I don’t think it is too much to expect a driver to know what a block of shops is or a basement parking garage for that matter. Apart from driving us efficiently to where we need to go, taxi drivers need to know some basic things like where are different kinds of restaurants, shops, doctors, pharmacies, bank machines, and yes, where to get a decent burger.