By Colin Qian and Thomas Peter
BEIJING (Reuters) – It was freezing and the streets were slick as substitute driver Liu Pengfei bade farewell to his mother, wife and son before riding into Beijing on his tiny scooter.
Liu, 33, and his fellow drivers make their living getting drunk people safely home. And with Beijing urging restaurants, entertainment venues and public transportation to extend hours in a bid to boost consumption, Liu’s clients on DiDi Chuxing, China’s biggest ride-hailing service platform, have multiplied.
“My orders after midnight have grown a lot, and a third more of my customers are asking me to drive them to the next entertainment spot instead of going home,” Liu said. “(Our) business makes the most money in the later half of the night.”
His rates triple after midnight.
The high payoff has lured Liu to travel 20km (12 miles) from his home in nearby Hebei province daily. He earned 12,000 yuan ($1,742) a month on average last year. In some months, he raked in nearly 19,000 yuan, more than two times the average Beijing salary.
He and other drivers hang around night spots – less than 100 meters (100 yards) away, 12 men at a table were gorging on meat and downing beer – and when hired, use their clients’ own cars to drive them home.
The drivers check their phones as they wait, ready for their first customer of the night to contact them through a mobile app.
It is too soon to say whether extending opening hours of malls, creating food streets, and putting on late-night cultural performances will boost China’s consumption, with the economy still languishing at near 30-year lows. But on-demand drivers seem to be one early beneficiary.
Data from DiDi shows night-time orders for drivers increased 20% in Beijing’s central business district last year compared with a year earlier. In other cities like Dongguan, Changsha and Zhengzhou, orders jumped even more, as much as 50%.
Liu said he sees his business as promising, and plans to stick with it for the next few years.
But, inevitably, family life suffers.
“Some weekends, my son would hug my leg when I leave, crying and asking me to play with him,” Liu said.
(Reporting by Colin Qian and Thomas Peter. Editing by Gerry Doyle)