“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.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.