21 August 2008
Accounting for a tenth of our road traffic, Sydney’s taxis are part of the city’s fabric and character. Tatyana Leonov goes along for the ride.
“There used to be a Maori guy who used to flip a coin for the fare. I’ve heard many stories about him – he’s pretty famous,” tells Richard who’s been driving taxis in Sydney for almost 30 years. “He’d get half way to where he was going and then say – ‘I’ll flip you for the fare, double or nothing’, and it was always nothing believe me.”
Approximately 125 million taxi journeys take place in Sydney in one calendar year. Taxi drivers can potentially meet over one hundred people a week. They may be sober, drunk, rich or poor. Unlike most jobs where an introduction precedes meeting someone new, the life of a taxi driver entails new people all the time, no introductions.
Of course taxis were not always part of life. The world’s first taxi was probably someone who gave someone else a lift for food or a gift. Horse and carriage operators began working for money in London and Paris during the 17th century, and the first motorised taxi with a meter was built by Gottlieb Daimler in 1897. Named the Daimler Victoria it was sold to Stuttgart transportation and was used to start the world's first motorised taxi company that same year.
In Australia horse-drawn taxis were adopted once cities were established. These varied from simple open-air cabins to more elaborate types with doors and glass windows. Motorised taxi vehicles were introduced to Sydney around 1907 and soon spread to other cities.
Today the Sydney taxi service is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere with around 5,000 cars and 20,000 drivers. Accounting for about 10 percent of daily road traffic, taxis make multiple journeys throughout the day, keeping up to 20 cars off the road per day. Running on LPG they are more environmentally friendly than most cars and are considered to be part of Sydney’s public transport system.
Sydney is a contionuously growing city. With restraint in car parking supply and rise in petrol prices people are less inclined to drive around the CBD. Add the growth of business activities and the strictly enforced control on the kerbside and it is not hard to work out that taxi trips within the city are bound to grow. The biggest growth spurt in regards to traffic was the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“Since the Olympics the city has become more cosmopolitan, more international. There are lots of people from overseas working here on two or three contracts,” explains Adrian, who has been driving cabs in Sydney for 11 years.
World Youth Day was a more recent event that brought hundreds of thousands of people to Sydney. Ironically this particular event decreased traffic with many Sydneysiders choosing to leave the city. With almost all pilgrims opting to walk, taxi fares were hard to come by for drivers who still needed their weekly income.
“It wasn't until Monday evening when I collected my first pilgrim who, suffering from a foot injury requested the nearest railway station. Otherwise I carried a elderly Italian priest one evening and that was my World Youth Day,” tells Adrian.
Driving a cab opens you up to all kinds of experiences – good, bad, funny, sad. “Generally people affected by alcohol are the biggest danger for drivers,” tells Adrian.
Many drivers prefer to work at night for a variety of reasons ranging from less traffic, to a better monetary income when trains and buses become more sparse. Nathan, who has been driving cabs for 22 of the 34 years he has lived in Australia, once drove a jealous husband with a pistol, seeking out his wife.
“I was able to convince him not to do anything stupid and get on with his life.” While Richard has driven one half of a criminal duo straight to the police station when they skipped a fare, fearing what would happen if he stopped. Of course amusing scenarios are bound and do occur more regularly.
“The gay and lesbian annual Mardi Gras would be at the top of my list of funniest moments. All types of characters were in my cab from caricatured politicians to feathered roosters,” remembers Nathan. “My taxi was full of colour and glitter that day!”
Taxis can be a convenient way to get around. When the sun is up cabs are generally filled with business clients, tourist-related groups and the elderly or disabled. Late at night when trains and buses stop taxis are filled with every walk of life – trying to make their way home, or onto the next club.
It’s generally pretty easy to find a taxi in Sydney, except at about 3pm because it is the hour of the general handover. Those standing at a kerb at 3am on a Sunday morning will argue it’s hard to get a cab then too but this is the reality in any city on any given weekend.
“Sydney does not need more taxis – it needs people that have more tolerance. You have to wait. Same thing in New York, same thing in Detroit or Cairo,” Richard explains.
“When I started driving in 1980 there were too few taxis and people would complain or walk to Maroubra before they got a taxi. Then they got the number even, now there are too many taxis,” he adds.
To be a taxi driver in Sydney today you must be at least 20 years of age and have held an unrestricted Australian license for over 12 months. You must also complete a course, which costs around $1000, with opportunity for further training down the track. You can choose to work full-time or on a casual basis and can rent or own a cab.
Richard leases a cab and loves his job for the freedom it gives him. Working on a casual basis he is able to work shifts that suit him and jet off overseas for months at a time in between. Nathan choose his job to acquire independence. Like with any career, people choose driving for different reasons. They may be new to the country and it is one of the few jobs where they can quickly gain qualification. They may enjoy the social aspect of driving or want to try a different career path. Adrian worked in the country for many years as a surveyor and draftsman, before a minor back injury cut short his largely outdoor existence. “I thought what do I love doing. I love driving, I love meeting people, and fortunately not having any large obligations with family or financials I just got right in. I really enjoy the interaction and every fare is a new encounter,” he says. “After so many years I still go to work everyday with a real sense of anticipation.”