Reporter drives taxi to take pulse of the public

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Reporter drives taxi to take pulse of the public

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JoongAng Ilbo reporter Park Min-je asks a passenger what she thinks about the upcoming general election. Park worked as a cab driver from Feb. 2 to March 27. The photo is a screenshot of a video recorded in the cab. [KANG JUNG-HYUN]

An old adage says that in polite society, you never discuss religion or politics.

Tell that to a Korean taxi driver.

People vent freely in taxis, and as the April 13 general election approaches, the topic is mostly likely to be politics.

The 280,000 taxi drivers in Korea driving some 250,000 cabs take customers from point A to point B - and listen to what’s on their minds. The average taxi driver in Seoul gives rides to 5,409 customers per year, spending 1,258 hours with them, about 52-days-worth of time, according to data from the Seoul Taxi Information System.

Talk about an earful.

“The constricted space inside a car is where people can talk without worrying about who may be listening,” said Park Kye-dong, a former lawmaker. “It guarantees anonymity.”

Park knows what he’s talking about: he drove a taxi in between stints in the National Assembly. After leaving it in 2010, he now owns a taxi cooperative.

In fact, this nexus between politics and taxi-driving is uniquely strong in Korea. Kim Moon-soo, a former governor of Gyeonggi, has four taxi-driver licenses valid in Seoul, Gyeonggi, Daegu and North Gyeongsang. He uses them to feel the pulse of the people.

Ahn Min-seok, a sitting lawmaker for the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea, also drives cabs once in a while to absorb public opinion with no filters.

If politicians can do it, so can a journalist.

From Feb. 2 to March 27, I worked as a temporary driver for Ok Taxi, a cab company based in Geumcheon District, southwestern Seoul. I drove a total of 26 hours. I did the same thing before the 2012 general election and presidential election.

When each passenger got into my cab, I asked what they thought about the election.



Just not that into it

Some customers were not too keen about the whole process.

“I don’t vote anymore,” a 43-year-old woman surnamed Lee said after she got into my cab around 6:40 p.m. on March 27 at Namguro Station, western Seoul. She asked to be taken to her home in Doksan-dong in Geumcheon District.

“I had hope in Ahn Cheol-soo and his People’s Party, but then the party brought in the same old people. What should I expect from people who are only interested in raising squabbles?”

A customer picked up at Sadang Station on Feb. 22 began his conversation with expletives.

“They [the politicians] don’t know how much the people are suffering,” said Nam Yeong-hyeon, 57, who admitted he had a few drinks with his dinner. “I am from South Jeolla, and I will not be voting for those [expletive] in the Minjoo Party. I want to vote for those who work for the people.”

A 65-year-old woman who had recently undergone knee surgery clambered into my cab with difficulty. She said she voted for the ruling party in the last presidential election.

“There is no one that I want to vote for,” she said. “The candidates only care about feeding their own families. They seem to fight every day, but not for the people.”



Not much to look forward to

“I don’t care about big election pledges. But I want to tell the candidates to please, please do something about the economy,” said a woman in her 50s after she hailed my cab near Ewha Womans University Station on March 2.

“There are so many moms working these days to help pay for their children’s private education expenses. It’s no surprise that many families are breaking apart.”

A 49-year-old man surnamed Jeong who got in the cab near Nakseongdae Station was headed to the Nambu Bus Terminal Station.

“Even if they manage to graduate from universities, students these days don’t have much to look forward to,” Jeong lamented. “Back in our time, we could dilly dally a little but still have lots of opportunities to be hired somewhere.”



Dead ends

Kim Yeong-doo, a 27-year-old employee of an Internet shopping mall, got in the cab near Seoul National University of Education Station. He laments about the weak economy.

“I’m now selling cable-knit sweaters for 4,900 won [$4.20] that went for 20,000 won a piece four years ago,” Kim said. “We’re not making any profit but our competitors are selling them for even less, giving us no other options.

“What hope is left for us working people?” he continued. “We just have to work, work, work, until we die.”

A 39-year-old surnamed Shin hailed the cab on the evening of March 2, near Seocho-daero, the 4,200-meter (2.6-mile) strip extending from the Isu Station intersection to the Gangnam Station intersection. When I asked his profession, he said he was an office manager of a law firm in Seoul.

“I get off work early these days because there isn’t much to do,” Shin said. “I wish I brought home at least 2 million won per month. But I don’t. I would take the job of a day laborer, but how can I do that with a law degree?

“You ask what I think about politics? I beg our national leaders and politicians to do a good job for all of us.”

BY PARK MIN-JE [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

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