Pavement math

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Back stateside now, after a long haul from China. Lots of big steps (train rides spanning oceans, flights leaping time zones), punctuated by a series of small steps (motorbike sprints between train stations, dreamlike pre-dawn bus rides to airports). Gets me reflecting upon how distance is considered/calculated. For “conventional” taxis, the hard math of the meter rules, with time and distance being precisely calculated and determining all. In contexts where demand for taxis outstrips supply, and particularly if unfamiliarity is sensed in the passenger, the route may vary from the shortest to the one that will take the driver past other areas where there may be other passengers to pick up. Traffic naturally also can redefine the “best” way to get somewhere, with the shortest means not necessarily being the one that takes the least time. The longer it takes them to get there isn’t a bad thing, and getting “lost” can be a lucrative proposition, although this past week I experienced for the first time a taxi driver actually resetting the meter after having driven the wrong way out of JFK and getting lost for several minutes; the meter had just ticked $10, and we had just begun to orient ourselves as to which way we should be headed – a deft button press, time and distance reset, a real-life Ctrl + Z.

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On the flipside, there’s far fuzzier (and sometimes entertaining, depending upon how much of a hurry you happen to be in) means of negotiating and assigning value to a given journey. From moto-taxis in China, to conventional taxis in Myanmar, it seems that besides (projected) time and distance, an additional dimension comes into play: effort. For a request to ascend a steep hill or thread through a narrow alleyway, expect to provide additional money or a convincing counter-argument (“I’ll just get off outside, no need to drive in!”, “You call that a hill? What about [hill across town]? This is nothing by comparison!”) during the bargaining process. This method of assigning distance to a trip is reminiscent of the original definition of the Chinese concept of “li”, originally a measure of effort as opposed to distance. If walking from a valley to a peak were ten li, descending via the same route might be five. For this method, however, you can be damn sure you’re getting there in the shortest amount of time, pending either you or the driver being confused about your destination, which can lead to a potentially complicated mid-journey fare re-negotiation. Everything is negotiable, though fuel and time can only be burned once.

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Hammering out prices for the second of the above two methods is never a dull moment – watching a local negotiate transportation is a consistently enlightening experience, though without a deep knowledge of the route in question it is challenging to replicate. Again, what makes the process interesting is the nature of the knowledge, and how in most cases it defies being easily quantified/assessed – there’s little you can come back with as a counter argument to “the road is bad”, or “lots of police are out around this time ” (a particular concern (when convenient) for the quasi-legal motorcycle taxis across China’s cities and suburbs). Consider what a solution to endow a non-local with sufficiently deep knowledge to bargain would look/function like – could there ever be an app for that? Also notable is when the two calculation methods co-exist in the same place, offering options for both money- and time-constrained individuals; one common example visible at transport hubs across the world is the conventional taxi area with its long line of passengers, and the accompanying entrepreneurial hustlers (with their savvy group of drivers) offering the chance to skip it (along with the meter, of course). A little local knowledge, language, and bravado can go a long way, but with multiple drivers who’ve got each others’ backs, the odds are stacked against the uninformed outsider.

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Usually beats walking, though.

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