Lunar New Year

Facial recognition to ticketing apps: how tech is helping ease the Lunar New Year travel crush

Technology is playing a part to ease the travel crush during Lunar New Year. An estimated 3 billion trips will be made in a six-week period starting next week as hundreds of millions of Chinese make their way back to their hometowns. 

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 January, 2018, 8:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 January, 2018, 11:59am

China’s Lunar New Year travel season will begin to ramp up from next week as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel billions of miles back to their hometowns to reunite with family and usher in the Year of the Dog. 

An estimated 3 billion trips in total, by all modes of transport imaginable, would be undertaken within a six-week period through mid-March, making it the biggest annual human migration event. In past years, snowstorms have closed down airports, trapped thousands in near-stampede conditions at train stations that make mosh pits feel spacious, while scalpers fleeced weary overladen migrant workers who had little choice but to accept exorbitant ticket prices to get home. 

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To ease the burden on the national transport network and ensure the security and safety of travellers, a host of hi-tech tools like facial recognition will be deployed at key nodes to manage the flow. At the front end, mobile payments and web-based ticketing apps are being used to reduce the hours-long queues for tickets at railway stations. Ride-hailing apps use location positioning to pool travellers going the same way.

Every year, China’s railways bear the brunt of “chunyun”, which translates to “spring transport”, as the holiday travel period is known. 

David Jiang, 24, who runs his own education start-up, will be traversing the length of the country from subtropical Shenzhen in the south of China to his hometown Lang Fang in the northern province of Hebei, a distance of almost 1,200 miles that will take 22 hours to complete by car. It’s the railway for Jiang as the distance is too far to cover feasibly by car and there are no direct flights to Lang Fang from Shenzhen.

“I will be exhausted if I have to be confined in a small space and can’t move for more than 10 hours,” Jiang said of sharing a car. To secure a train ticket, he uses an app called Gaotie Guanjia, which automatically monitors and “grabs” tickets when they become available on the official China Railways booking website

The service fee of 30 yuan (US$4.7) is a small price to pay because it “frees me from worrying about not being able to get the tickets,” he said. He managed to snare two tickets from Shenzhen to Hebei on February 13, the day before Lunar New Year’s eve, even though the official railways website showed no tickets were available. 

To make it easier for customers to obtain their tickets, China Railways has increased the number of payment methods by adding Tencent Holdings’ popular WeChat Pay during this period. The move breaks the four-year dominance of Alipay over mobile payments in China’s multibillion-dollar train ticket booking market.

There is also no need to print out paper train tickets in major cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou, and passengers can enter the stations directly by scanning their national ID cards. In Hainan, the island province off China’s southern coast, the high-speed train station controls access to its platforms using facial recognition software. Travellers can enter the station within three seconds, much shorter than the previous manual check-in. 

At Beijing’s airport, facial recognition software provided by Baidu Inc. is being tested as a means for verification for passengers to board their flights. The “face as boarding pass” capacity may be ready for implementation as early as this year.

“Big data has already been in transport and it optimises the traffic flow and shows which routes are the most popular lines,” said Wang Huie, an analyst at Beijing-based consultancy Analysys. “It is more convenient for passengers to access stations by scanning QR codes or ID cards, or even facial recognition directly. ” 

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For shorter distances and those unable to get a train ticket or who cannot afford more expensive air fares, there’s now the option of sharing cars with other passengers bound for the same destination. Didi Chuxing, China’s dominant ride-booking app, introduced a carpooling service called Hitch.

Ride-sharing would have been unavailable just 10 years ago for people like Lu Xiaoyu, a 28-year-old engineer who works in Shenzhen. He failed to get train tickets to his hometown of Changsha in Hunan province and will rely on the Hitch app to get him a seat in a northbound car.

“I set the departure time and place, as well as my destination on the app and the price will appear on the page,” Lu said. “The drivers will answer my request and we can discuss more details by phone.” 

The demand for a carpooling service during the Spring Festival is strong because it provides door-to-door transport, unlike travelling by rail or by air. Airfares also soar during the holiday period, making them unaffordable for many travellers. 

By using deep-learning technology – computers teaching themselves tasks by crunching large sets of data – to match demand for rides with the supply of private cars, ride-hailing has become a handy choice for when buses, taxis and trains are overwhelmed.

Didi’s Hitch service is expected to log 33 million long-distance ride shares during the coming Lunar New Year travel period, or almost half of the trip volume provided by planes, according to the Beijing-based company. Last year, about 4.2 million people used a cross-city ride-sharing service by Didi Kuaidi during the 40-day travel period before and after the holiday.

Even so, technology can only do so much. And it’s a race because the number of trips increase each year as China expands its national transport network. 

Technology like car-sharing is helping to “ease the burden of Chinese people going back home during Chinese New Year”, said Wang. “After all, it is the largest mass migration on the planet.”

For Jiang, the Spring Festival is the only time of the year he can reunite with his family and take a break from the infamous “996” culture (9am to 9pm, six days a week) that permeates China’s tech start-up industry.

“No matter how difficult the travelling is, I will go back home,” Jiang said. “In Shenzhen, there are lot of immigrants and they all go back home. I feel very lonely if I stay in the city by myself.”