Car-hiring apps in China go the distance, help ease Chinese New Year travel chaos

The biggest annual human migration on earth is receiving some help from technology this year, with Chinese car-hiring apps launching new functions that allow users to carpool home for the holidays.

More than 2.9 billion trips are expected to be made during this year's "chunyun", or "spring movement", which sees Chinese heading home for the Spring Festival.

But the travel crush means that many commuters, like Beijing undergraduate Jane Ma, 22, are left without a ticket home.

"Schoolwork delayed my decision to purchase a ticket, so I went on Didi to look for drivers," the Heilongjiang native told The Straits Times. "I'm very glad there's an alternative available."

Chinese car-hiring apps like Didi Kuaidi and Dida are targeting commuters like Ms Ma, by launching ride-sharing services across the country in time for "chunyun". In the past, these services were available only within cities.

Getting more people to carpool could ease the load on public transport, which is always overcrowded during Spring Festival.

Official data shows road transport still dominates during this period, making up about 85 per cent of this year's "chunyun" trips.

"The surge in traveller numbers is so big every year that it's hard for public transport to cope... we believe car-pooling is one possible solution," said Ms Huang Jieli, general manager of Didi's car-pooling service.

Market leader Didi said more than 580,000 rides have been taken since its inter-city car-pooling services started last November.

It estimates more than a million rides might be made during Spring Festival.

Henan native Zhang Wei is keen to drive home, if he can get fellow passengers to defray the cost of his trip from Beijing. "My cost is about 1,200 yuan (S$257). If three passengers can pay me 200 yuan each, that will be worth my while," he told Beijing Daily.

Car-pooling, however, will still be more expensive than trains or buses. A train ride from northern Tianjin will cost 718 yuan to southern Shenzhen, and 679 yuan to south-western Chengdu. Car-pooling will set the customer back by about 1,000 yuan.

And while car-hiring and car-pooling are becoming very popular within cities, some commuters may need to get used to sharing a long ride home with strangers.

For Ms Ma, the most important thing is to get to her hometown of Jixi, which is about 1,600km north-east of Beijing via highway.

She is still deliberating which driver to go back with, after contacting eight people, who are asking for around 800 yuan for a one-way trip. "I'll pick one of them eventually," she said. "No matter what, I don't want to spend Chinese New Year alone in Beijing."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 08, 2016, with the headline 'Car-hiring apps go the distance, help ease travel chaos too'. Print Edition | Subscribe