“You need to leave home three hours in advance”: On the reality of commuting in Beijing

Just another day on the Beijing Subway. Image: Getty.

Sihui Station. One of the busiest subway station in central Beijing.

A train comes. People all stop checking their cellphones, holding tight to their bags or briefcases and waiting for the door to open. The doors open. The game on.

The people standing at the front of the lines rush into the carriage. To be more precise, they are pushed into the carriages by the people standing behind them. Some of them should have decided to wait for the next train, but they are somehow forced to get on the train by the squeezing crowds. Sometimes, there are women yelling at others to stop pushing.

The carriages are full of people within seconds, with only half of the waiting people able to get on. The other half just have to wait for the next train. The same scene repeats and repeats, lasting for 5 hours every day, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

The Beijing Subway: the Batong line extends line 1 to the eastern suburbs. Image: Ran/Hat600/Wikimedia Commons.

This is the adventure that Beijing commuters have to take on every day. It is, honestly, insane. Crowded stations, long waiting lines, passengers pouring into the carriages – this is the nightmare faced by all the Beijing workers taking this line to go and back from work. There is a saying in my university that it takes great courage to take subways during rush hours. And it does.

Batong Line, the one connecting central Beijing and the eastern residential areas, is one of the busiest subway lines in Beijing, delivering more than 200,000 commuters every day. The picture below is of its terminus Sihui station during evening rush hour.

Sihui station. Image: author provided.

Mrs.Hou is a 31 years old woman who lives in Tongzhou, a main residential district of Beijing. She has to take Batong Line every day to go to work. “If you want to get to work on time, you need to leave home three hours in advance to make sure that you are able to squeeze into the subway,” she says. “Sometimes I even have to take the opposite line first to avoid those throngs in the stations near the residential areas. I never expect that I would get a seat – I just want to get into the carriages, that’s all.”

Miss.Li, a 16 years old high school student, takes the subway to school every day. “Sometimes during the morning, I have to wait at the subway station for half an hour, because I’m unable to squeeze into any carriage. That’s why I am always late for school. There is no space, no space at all. Once my body was in the carriage, but my hair was outside.”


Mr.Han, a commuter, told me, “I don’t need to worry about braking or falling. This would not happen. After all, there is no space to fall.”

In the picture, taken from the stairs overlooking the platform, you can see that crowds have occupied the waiting areas for the opposite platform. Though there is a train every three minutes during the peak hours, the number of people waiting on the platform never seems to change: as throngs of commuters hustling into the carriages, other throngs pour onto the platform, to anxiously wait. Most of them are using their cellphones to kill time or listen to music. The platform is silent, even though hundreds of people are gathering at the station, as if they are gathering their energy to win the oncoming battle. This is probably the strangest thing about it: that so many people could occupy a specific place at the same time, and it could be that silent.

Although the government has made every effort to address the problem – for instance, shortening the interval between trains – it could not meet the demand. More than 200,000 extra people pouring into Beijing every day from all over China and the world. The stress on public transport in China is a big issue – but it’s hard to deny the authorities are doing well in delivering more than 20m residents to their destinations every day.

Siyi Liu is a Chinese exchange student, currently studying journalism at Bath Spa University.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.