I spent a lot of hours on the Beijing Subway this week. It still boggles my mind. This subway system is sprawling, growing, congested, and cheap.
Like the city itself, the Beijing Subway system sprawls out over Beijing’s urban and suburban areas. Right now, there are 289 miles of track (that’s about the distance from Grand Rapids, MI to Sault Ste. Marie, MI). 16 lines crisscross the city. You can spend hours and hours riding the rails (literally—from where I am staying right now in the southeast to my language school in the northwest is between 1 1/2 and 2 hours). There are several places that the early 2000’s edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook said things like “getting here can be a bit of an adventure” and “take bus 605 to bus 736 to bus 104” that now have their own subway stop.
It seems especially sprawling when you consider that when I first visited Beijing in 2003 (just 11 years ago) there were only 2 subway lines (and 1 mostly elevated train line that I honestly didn’t realize was part of the system). If you look carefully at the photo below, the dark blue square in the middle and the bright red line were the first two, and the bright yellow is the elevated line. In 11 years, the subway has exploded!
And this system is still growing, quickly. The number of kilometers of track is planned to double by 2020. Several new lines are scheduled to open yet this year. For as big as it is now, I can’t fully wrap my mind around what it will be like in 10 years.
Even though it is huge, it is still congested with people. It makes sense, because around 10 million people travel on the subway each day. For comparison, that is slightly more that Michigan’s population. That is a lot people. I am told I have not seen it at its busiest, which is morning and evening rush hour. I’ve heard stories that people are almost literally pushed on to the trains with no place to move once you’re on. I can imagine those stories are true, because almost all the time I’ve ridden seats were at a premium. One time the line to enter the station was out the station doors. The escalators or stairs to exit the platform are always packed with commuters who have no personal space bubbles.
One final amazing thing about the subway: it is cheap! A ride, including transfers (except if you get on the airport express train) is 2RMB (approx. $0.33USD). I think that in about 10 days I’ve spent about $5USD on the subway. There keep being rumors/announcements that the prices are going up because it is currently heavily subsidized by the government, but so far it hasn’t happened. When it does it will still be cheap transportation!