Having now spent a few weeks in Beijing, I’ve learned that its public transportation system leaves something to be desired. In the United States, I am mainly familiar with the mass transit systems in Washington DC and New York, so when I arrived in Beijing I assumed that I would primarily be using the subway to get around. Beijing’s subway is actually extremely nice; in terms of cleanliness, I rate it higher than New York. For an American, it’s also quite cheap (less than a dollar to get to any stop in the city). And, unlike in Washington DC, it costs the same amount to get anywhere within the inner city; DC’s subway charges different fares depending on how far you go, which can be unfair to poor people who have a long commute to their work. The problem is that the subway system just isn’t that big. Tsinghua University, where I live, is very close to a subway stop, but I found that I often had to walk for half an hour once I got off of the subway to get to my final destination.
As for buses, Beijing’s bus system is much more extensive and, unlike in most cities I’ve visited in the United States, people really do use the buses. On the weekends (the only times I’ve traveled by bus), they can be jam packed and you are lucky if you have a square foot to stand on, let alone finding a seat. But, because there are no designated bus lanes, the buses run into the same traffic jams as cars and taxis. And there are a lot of traffic jams in Beijing.
I’ve decided now that biking is the best way to get around in Beijing. Factoring in the time it takes to walk from a subway stop to my final destination, biking is sometimes just as fast as the subway. And, although I’ve never timed it, I suspect that biking may compare favorably to buses as well. I’ve certainly enjoyed speeding past long traffic jams on my bike. Even though Beijing’s traffic is just as crazy as New York’s (if not worse), Beijing is actually more bike-friendly than New York or Washington DC in my opinion. This is largely because most major roads have designated lanes for bicycles. Also, there are so many people who get around by bike that cars are very used to looking out for cyclists. At intersections, there are usually at least 5 cyclists crossing the street at any given time, so the cars basically have to stop for them. Although I am aware of the statistic that China has 600 biking fatalities a day, I still feel safer biking through Beijing than I would in New York. (And I suspect that a large factor in that statistic is the fact that nobody wears a helmet. Even the other foreigners I’ve seen have given up on helmets because they look so out of place. I’m still wearing mine, so I get plenty of weird looks.)
Even though I prefer biking to other means of transportation, I am probably in the minority. According to a professor I know who has lived here for the last five years, the number of cars has increased noticeably in that amount of time; cars are a big status symbol here. This is obviously a serious problem, both in terms of air pollution and traffic jams. It may soon reach the point where owning a car is just as inconvenient as biking everywhere (actually, it seems to me that it has already reached that point – I would never want to own a car here). But for the majority of people, it seems that the “status symbol” factor is still overwhelming the inconvenience and air pollution factor.
So clearly Beijing has some serious transportation issues. In my next post, I’ll try to write more of my thoughts for how Beijing might be able to manage some of these problems.