Taxi Driver Strategies

I’ve just arrived back from a business trip in Melbourne, Australia. I’m creating a strategy for and managing the implementation of a new Intranet site. While I was over in Melbourne, I saw some examples of strategic thinking in action – by the local taxi drivers. Everybody is strategic in some form. But taxi drivers perhaps have more of a requirement to devise cunning strategies for success than most, because their industry is extremely competitive.

Strategies are all about having a plan to optimize performance and the following two examples illustrate this quite well. The first example (not in chronological order) occured on the ride to the airport to go back to my home in Wellington, New Zealand. The driver I had knew the route to the airport like the back of his hand, and he’d worked out a strategy to get from the city to the airport in the quickest time possible in peak traffic. He reckoned he’d shaved 5 minutes off the time most people would take to get to the airport. His strategy was all to do with moving into different lanes on the motorway at what he figured were the optimum times.

There are 4 lanes in total on most of the motorway between Melbourne City and the international airport. The driver started off by cruising in the extreme left lane. The right-hand lanes were busier (and hence slightly slower) at that point, but people knew that the left lanes would get busy later when new traffic entered the motorway from the left. And soon we did indeed come to a point where an off-road merged with the left lane of the motorway. But instead of moving into one of the right lanes straight away to avoid the merge, my driver continued on in the left lane. He went as far as he could in the left lane, before the traffic began to slow down due to the merge. His intention was always to move across to the right-hand lanes. But the trick, he said, was to leave the lane changes as late as possible – so he could push in ahead of those people who had moved from the left to right lanes before the slowdown in the left lanes started. So at the point where the left lanes had slowed down, but not quite so much as to make it impossible to shift into the right lanes, the driver made his move. He pushed his way across two lanes so he was now in the middle-right lane. It wasn’t an easy manoeuvre, as the two middle lanes were by that stage very busy and those people fortunate enough to already be in the right lanes were reluctant to let other people in (as it would slow them down).

The driver advised that he’d learned to tell which cars would let him push in and which would block his move. So he’d picked up the skill of being able to accurately judge which cars are ‘the weak links’ (my words, not his) and which ones he won’t take on. I should’ve quizzed him more on this, as it occured to me later that it would be good to know whether he makes his judgement call based on the model of the car or the type of person driving it – or a mixture of both?

So we were now in the middle-right lane. “Look at how many cars we passed”, the driver said, gesturing in the rear-view mirror at the cars behind us that had stuck to the right lanes throughout or had made their move into the right lanes too early.

After cruising in the right lanes for a while, the driver pointed out that coming up ahead was a bend – which would slow down the right lanes. I craned my neck to look ahead of me, but the bend was nowhere to be seen. The driver though had driven the city-to-airport route hundreds of times before – he had foreknowledge. So before the bend came into view, he pushed back into the left lanes. And sure enough, when the bend arrived the cars in the right lanes slowed down relative to those in the left lanes.

After the bend had been navigated, our car drifted back into the right lanes where it was faster once more. Then, at a time that the driver had pre-calculated was optimum, he pushed back into the extreme left lane for the airport turn-off.

I may have left out one or two other lane changes in this story, as my memory has been affected by jetlag. But the moral is that the driver knew the system (of driving from the city to the airport in peak-hour traffic) so well, he’d been able to devise a strategy to optimize the journey – optimal performance in this case measured by having the quickest possible travel-time.

I’ll give you another example of taxi driver strategy that made an impression on me, albeit in a less favourable light. When I checked out of my hotel in Melbourne city, I had to go back to the office for a bit. The office was only one block away from the hotel, but my luggage was too heavy to walk it. So I took a taxi.

Now obviously a person standing outside of a hotel with luggage is an attractive prospect for a taxi driver, as odds-on that person will be travelling to the airport. Ka-ching! So it didn’t take long for a taxi to pull over. 

The expectant face of the driver leaned over, waiting to hear the magic words: “To the airport please.” I poked my head into the car and informed him I was only going a couple of streets. The driver looked at me disbelievingly for a second, then his face assumed a mixture of crestfallen and disgusted. It would only be a $5 fare for him. At first I thought the guy wasn’t going to let me in the car. But he relented, after my slightly terse “Is that alright?”.

As soon as I got in the taxi, the driver asked me if it’d be OK if he picked up another passenger on the way.

“Another passenger?” I said querulously, “You want to pick up someone else while I’m in the car?”

The driver could tell I wasn’t keen on that idea, so he quickly changed tack. “No, no – I meant when we arrive. Can I pick up another passenger at the same time I drop you off? That’s all I meant.” His voice was apologetic, but at the same time dripping with contempt.

“It’s hard to get people going to the airport”, the driver continued, “It’s the luck of the draw who you get” – his surly expression indicating his bad luck at picking me up. He ended up getting his revenge by dropping me off 50 metres before my office, claiming that the traffic would prevent him finding a place to stop elsewhere.

This taxi driver’s strategy was obviously to avoid $5 fares and always try to pick up airport fares. I’m only guessing, but I think the taxi system he works in is optimized when a driver picks up passengers going to and from the airport. I realise this is common in most cities, but there will also be reasons specific to Melbourne why inner city passengers don’t cut it – e.g. perhaps taxi drivers there waste too much time sitting at intersections waiting for trams to go past. I don’t know the reasons, but the optimum strategy does seem to be to get as many airport passengers as possible in a day’s work.

So there you have it – some strategies that taxi drivers use to try and achieve optimal performance. It’s damn hard work being a taxi driver, due to the competition they face from other taxis and the complex environment they work in (peak traffic flows, trying to decide where the best places are to pick up passengers, etc). I admire their strategic thinking abilities. A desk-bound webman like me could learn a lot from them.

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