Making tracks | South China Morning Post
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Making tracks

As gridlock grips the capital's roads, Beijing's subway system is feeling the strain. But what, asks Hannah Xu, is the government doing about it? Quite a lot, as it happens. Pictures by Simon Song

 

It’s 8am on a sticky summer Friday as 24-year-old Chen Long arrives at Liujiayao subway station, in the Fengtai district of southeast Beijing, to begin his daily commute. Chen is in luck: the queuing rail – a crowd-control solution commonly seen outside the city’s Metro stations – is clear. On some mornings Chen needs to queue for 15 minutes before even getting into the station.

Having descended the stairs, he queues to have his backpack checked – another routine procedure, one introduced ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and still in effect.

Picking up his bag from the other side of the screening machine, he pushes his way to the far end of the platform, a habit that buys him a shorter walk to the escalator when he changes from Line 5 to Line 2.

Twenty people are lined up ahead of Chen on the platform. The train arrives. When he reaches the door, there is hardly any available space inside the carriage. He squeezes in and the door bangs shut behind him.

Inside the packed train, the air conditioning is fighting a losing battle against millions of sweat glands. There is nothing for Chen to hold on to, but there’s no danger of him falling over: the weight of the crowd keeps passengers upright. On some days, when he stands by the seated area, he can read the news on his mobile phone but today he is unable to reach into his bag for the device and he can do no more than count the stops before exiting.

Chen would prefer to take a bus to work. A direct route runs from his neighbourhood to his downtown office, on Financial Street. It would be less crowded, but the congested roads can double his travel time.

“Often the bus is just stuck in the traffic,” he says. “It can take more than half an hour for it to move past a 500-metre long, badly jammed part of the road. The subway is crowded but it’s the only means of transport that can get me to work on time.”

 

THAT REALITY HAS BEEN acknowledged: during November’s 18th party congress, it was announced that 100 billion yuan (HK$123 billion) would be spent on the construction of subway lines across the city, in addition to that already spent on the new line and extensions that opened on December 30.

A megacity, home to 20 million permanent residents and eight million migrants, Beijing has in recent years earned the dubious honour of having the most frustrating transport system in China. A pun doing the rounds has renamed the “capital city” the “top congested city” (a play on the similar pronunciation of the two phrases in Putonghua).

Lengthy commutes, appalling air pollution and high property prices have given the capital a reputation for being one of the most unlivable places in the country. According to a report by Xinhua, the official news agency, commuters here spend an average of 52 minutes every morning getting to work – high by national standards – and those who travel overground are stuck immobile in traffic for an average of 14 minutes.

“A city is a place that can offer all sorts of convenience to its residents – in going to work, going shopping or taking part in cultural activities,” says Yung Ho Chang, one of the mainland’s foremost architects, at his Beijing studio. “But when a city fails all this – no place to take a walk, no easy transport to get around and nowhere to park when you drive – it runs contrary to the purpose of a city.”

Beijing used to be a pleasant place to travel around. The roads were not wide but traffic jams were unheard of. During rush hour, bicycle lanes were packed with cyclists, the ding-ding of their bells drowning out the sound of the motorised traffic.

“People here have been misled by the desire to own a car,” Chang says. “They think that all their lives they did not have a car and now they want one.”

Until early 2011, the government actively encouraged car ownership. By then, the number of private cars in Beijing had reached 3.7 million. The result is that the capital today is like a huge car park, with near perpetual congestion throughout the day. Roads have been expanded and the few bicycle lanes that remain are blocked with parked vehicles.  “I biked to work once,” says 22-year-old Wang Jian, who works in Haidian district. “But it’s too dangerous and also unhealthy, what with all the exhaust fumes.” Now she travels by bus and subway, making a one-way journey that takes, on average, 1½ hours.

An online guide to surviving the subway recently went viral. Wang’s own tips include: move towards the corners of the carriages, which tend to offer a little more space; never wear open-toe shoes or high heels on trains; and never engage in arguments with other passengers.

The advice of 28-year-old Yu Tianyu, a fashion magazine editor who faces a daily commute of 1½ hours each way, includes avoiding arterial lines and rush hours. “I board the subway at 9.30am and return after 7pm,” she tells Post Magazine. “I’m lucky my job has flexible hours.”

Recent and ongoing expansion of the subway system may help to ease some of the overcrowding, but it’s a cause of much commuter frustration that Beijing already has a huge, stalling bus network: buses run on 860 routes at short intervals, reaching every corner of the city. Fares are extremely cheap; holders of a Beijing transport card (equivalent to the Octopus card in Hong Kong) pay 40 fen per bus ride. But despite the government encouraging greater use of public transport, the gridlock on the roads means bus travel is widely detested. In an attempt to ease matters, dedicated bus lanes and lanes reserved for buses during rush hour have been introduced.

Nonetheless, “we still have not seen a notable change in road efficiency”, says Yan Xuedong, of the School of Traffic and Transportation at Beijing Jiaotong University.

User numbers for the subway system speak for themselves. Before the December extensions, on an average day, 6.4 million passenger trips were made on a system that had an official capacity for 7.5 million.

Thanks to government subsidies, subway fares are also extremely low – two yuan per ride, regardless of the number of stops or changes made.

Beijing’s first subway line, 24 kilometres long, was built in 1969. Originally intended as a national defence project, Line 1 runs under the east-west Changan Avenue; but due to frequent fires, reliability problems and political sensitivities, it took until 1981 for the line to be opened to full public use. Line 2, which runs on a loop in the inner city, was in use by 1984; Line 13, another loop, to the north of the city, opened in September 2002.

“The [time lag] in subway construction foreshadows Beijing’s traffic problems,” says one of Yan’s colleagues, Shao Chunfu. “Subway construction needs to be planned many years ahead. Now we have fallen into a pattern of attacking the problem when it is already full blown.”

Massive subway construction began after July 2001, when Beijing won the bid to host the 2008 Olympics. And as of December 30, the city has 16 lines, 15 of them run by Beijing Metro, the other (the 28-kilometre Line 4) operated in a joint venture with Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation.

Three shifts of workers laboured around the clock to meet deadlines, says Li Gang, the assistant chief engineer in charge of constructing the new line, Line 6. “We accomplished it in only three years. It would probably take 10 years in the West,” he says.

According to Zhang Wenqiang of the Beijing Transport Commission, the latest additions (70 kilometres’ worth) have increased the subway’s capacity to nine million trips per day (on January 11, a new record of 8.7 million trips was set). Line 6, which runs from Wuluju, in western Haidian district, to Caofang, in eastern Chaoyang district, is expected to ease the pressure on the heavily loaded Line 1. The latter, meanwhile, has now been surpassed as the most crowded by the newly extended Line 10. One weibo user, Xin_niki, reported that she queued outside Shuangjing station for more than 10 minutes on the day the extension opened and that, once inside, she watched five trains leave without managing to get on one.

“This shows that for a megacity like Beijing, we need more subway lines,” says Yan.

Shao, who attended Kyoto University in Japan and undertook research there in the 1990s on traffic planning and management, predicts it will take many years for the city to achieve the density and convenience of Tokyo’s network, the world’s most extensive.

“It is unprecedented for a city to build 50 kilometres of subway in a year, as in Beijing,” he says. “But we need to build more lines with shorter distances between each stop. It will probably take another 25 years for Beijing to match Tokyo’s 2,530 kilometres of subway lines.”

Forty-two per cent of daily commuters in Beijing use mass transit systems, whereas in Tokyo, during rush hour, 91 per cent of commuters use public transport, mostly underground trains, and only 9 per cent drive to work, according to Shao. He predicts that the new lines will see the percentage of users in Beijing rise to only 45 per cent (the central government announced earlier this month that it wants to boost the use of urban public transport to about 60 per cent as part of the current five-year plan; an ostensibly arbitrary target that is to be met by extending tax breaks and fuel subsidies on mass-transit vehicles as well as providing more bus lanes).

“The problem with Beijing’s transport is that pedestrians, buses, bicycles and private cars all mix up on the road,” Shao says. “We need to direct the commuters underground, especially in the central districts, like in Tokyo.”

More tracks are in the pipeline. At the 18th party congress, Beijing vice-mayor Chen Gang said that the 100 billion yuan earmarked for subway lines will fund the construction of 200 kilometres of track, “to make Beijing a city with one of the longest subway lines in the world”.

The total length of Beijing’s subway system will have been extended from its current 440 to 660 kilometres by 2015, by which time the daily capacity is expected to have reached 12 million trips.

There have also been efforts to revive bicycle use in the capital. Early last year, 14,000 bicycles were placed at busy locations in four districts for commuters to use – and 15,000 people have so far purchased cards to use the service. According to the Beijing Morning Newspaper, 90 per cent of the time, the bicycles are used for less than an hour, which makes them free of charge. Additional hours cost one yuan each, with the maximum daily charge being eight yuan.

“The idea is to encourage more people to use our service,” says an employee cleaning bicycles at a stand near Guanghua Lu, in the heart of Chaoyang’s central business district. “The police are having a clampdown on drink driving so the road is safe now for cyclists,” he says, beaming. The government plans to have set up 1,000 stands with 50,000 bicycles by 2015.

Chang envisions a future with fewer vehicles in Beijing. “When the car cannot bring them any convenience, people will start to rethink the idea of car ownership,” he says. “The streets in Beijing are far too wide. In the future, I’d like to see them divided into half, one half for vehicles, the other half for pedestrians, with greenery or shops along the middle.”

 

AFTER FOUR STOPS, Chen reaches the station where he changes lines. The moment the door opens, waves of people start to push through the throng.

“It can get really ugly and violent,” he says. “Elderly people and women with small children are definitely not suited to this.”

Then there is the long and narrow transit tunnel, which is not air conditioned. Chen inches forward with the crowd.

At 8.45am, he leaves the subway system. He still has more than 10 minutes to get to work.

“Compared with my colleagues, I’m fortunate I can get to work in less than an hour. I hope with the new lines it will be less crowded,” he says, as he heads for his office, the back of his shirt soaked in sweat.

 

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