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Subway (地铁) Posted by on May 24, 2011 in subway, travel

The subway or 地铁 ( tiě) is a relatively new form of public-transit making progress in Chinese mega-cities. More out of necessity than preference, the subway is quickly growing into a main form of transportation in Shanghai and Beijing for commuters frustrated with the alternative above-ground methods. It requires extensive planning, costly construction and millions of man-hours, but when completed, the subway lines offer alleviation from the terrible congestion of Chinese metropolises.

How popular has the subway become in the short decade that it has been around? Well, on April 30, 2010, the Beijing Subway tallied a record 6.4 million rides–in just a day! That’s incredible. In fact, Beijing is considering expanding lines to keep up with such growing demand.

Aside from over-congestion of major streets and roadways, why is the subway becoming so popular in China?

First, there is the price. The Chinese government has been very sympathetic to the affordability of public transit, aiming to make every municipal bus and subway ticket cheap enough that everyone can swing it. Public transit is seen as more of a public service to all 老百姓 and guests of the country. Nowhere is this more obvious than when taking the Beijing Subway, which charges a flat fee of 2 kuai to get you anywhere in the city (please note that the express shuttle to the airport is an additional cost of 20 kuai). That’s roughly 25-30 cents to traverse a city of 12 million!

Second, climate control in little metal tubes is fantastic, especially if they have air conditioning or 空调 (kōng tiáo). I know it’s not hugely important on most nice days–but there aren’t many “nice days” during Beijing’s summer or winter months. On days where the elements are too much, nothing beats sitting in a breezy cart watching CCTV.

Third, the subway is the most consistent form of public transit in schedule and in commute time. With some very few exceptions, the trains always run every 2-5 minutes and a closed track or “down time” for maintanence hardly ever occur. After all, 6.2 million people need to get where they are going–no time to stop. During rush hour, it’s your quickest bet if you are planning on traveling more than a few kilometers. Just be aware that unlike NYC, it doesn’t run after midnight or before 6 am.

Map of Beijing Subway.

Lastly, riding “the tube” can be a uniquely Chinese experience and one that you shouldn’t pass up. I will admit that during rush hour may not be a good idea if you are claustrophobic. In some instances, you almost feel like all 6.2 million people are boarding a cabin with you, requiring a great deal of pushing, shoving, kicking and throwing of elbows just to get on the train (or to stay on).  Often times, when the cabin was stufffed to capacity, another wave of Chinese people would come running over to the doors, desperately pushing and shoving themselves and others deeper into the train. On days when there just wasn’t any room left, I felt like a protagonist in a zombie movie, pushing and shoving a wall of groping limbs back out through the closing sliding doors so our train could finally start moving. See an example of the madness below from another 老外:

Then there are the loud cell phone (手机  shǒujī) conversations that sound as if the caller is informing the entire cabin of their day to day. I guess that’s what ipods and headphones are for. Plus you can always entertain yourself with the rerun of TV advertisements, news reports and clips of movies on the in-train monitors. Just hop aboard and enjoy the ride!

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About the Author: Stephen

Writer and blogger for all things China related. Follow me on twitter: @seeitbelieveit -- My Background: Fluent Mandarin speaker with 3+ years working, living, studying and teaching throughout the mainland. Student of Kung Fu and avid photographer and documentarian.


  1. Robert Taubman (Lao Lo):

    My wife and I were in Beijing in March this year. The subway is our preferred way of travel throughout the city. It is a fun experience, even during the rush hours. Sometimes your feet don’t even touch the floor it gets so crowded. And as busy as it gets, there is always someone moving through the crowd singing or just begging for a few extra yuan. And besides, it is much cheaper than being scalped by the bandit taxi drivers trying to con the laowai. Love it.

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