It’s been months since China’s biggest ride-hailing operator Didi suspended Hitch, its popular but controversial carpooling service, after two women were killed last year. But now Didi is promoting another carpooling feature.

Some Didi users can now use a “special-offer carpooling” feature, according to Chinese media reports, but it works a little differently from the now-suspended Hitch. It’s a part of the Didi Express service, which has always offered carpooling -- but with stricter requirements for becoming a driver than Hitch. 

There are a few other differences too. While Hitch used to let drivers pick passengers that are going to the same destination, Didi Express carpooling matches two passengers, and it has never been suspended.

The promotion, which is listed as a separate entry from Didi Express’s original carpooling feature, is set at a lower price. For now, it’s only live within specific areas in three cities as a trial, and users can only access it during rush hours.

A screenshot of the carpooling functions under Didi Express. (Picture: Qdaily)

Chauffeurs driving for Didi Express must go through a stricter verification process than what was required of Hitch drivers. While Didi Express and Didi Premiere require three years of driving experience, Hitch only required one year. It also let drivers sign up for an account with cars licensed under other names, including rental cars. 

One Chinese media outlet sought to show just how easy it was to become a Hitch driver. A reporter managed to successfully set up her account as a female driver using a male driver’s ID.

Didi’s Hitch service has been suspended since last August. (Picture: Reuters)

The Hitch service was first suspended in August last year. Didi drew public backlash after two female passengers using the service were raped and killed, allegedly by their Hitch drivers. Since then, the company has announced a range of measures to rectify issues with the service, including making drivers take safety knowledge tests and letting passengers and drivers blacklist each other. It even explored adding real-name verification.

A thorough safety overhaul was widely called for after the two murders, but the company’s actions also caused headaches for many users because of Didi’s dominance in ride-hailing. Users started having commuting problems after Didi halted all late-night operations for a week. As it became harder to hail a ride through Didi, unlicensed cabs and other ride-hailing platforms started to demand significantly higher fares.

Even after Didi restored all services except for Hitch, it still wasn’t as easy for many people to hail a ride. The government is more strictly enforcing a requirement for people to have three different licenses to operate as a ride-hailing driver. Ride-hailing companies have been told to purge drivers without all three from their platforms.

In October, Didi and Meituan said they purged nearly 200,000 private cars that violated regulations in Nanjing city alone. By March, platforms had also purged more than 305,000 private cars in Shanghai.

Easing commuting difficulties may be partly why Didi is promoting the carpooling feature now, but a lot of people are immediately reminded of the events last year and assume Didi is bringing back Hitch.

“This is Hitch in disguise,” one user said on Weibo.

“Didi, please don’t come out and harm people,” another Weibo user commented on a recent Didi post.

But many people also think that carpooling is due for a comeback.

“This is good for commuting,” a Weibo user said.

“Please restore it,” another user commented under a Chinese media story about Hitch last week. “It’s too inconvenient without it.”

Didi said this month that the Hitch service is still indefinitely suspended while the company keeps working to improve safety.