Beijing Commuting System: Challenges And Reactions In Urbanization

 By Lynsey Mengchen He

Every time I’ve been stuck in traffic for hours, I have always imagined myself driving a car like the one Christian Bale drove in the Batman movies. No matter how quickly a city expands geographically, transit can hardly keep up with the exponential growth of population as urbanization progresses.  Central areas usually receive the major commuting pressure, and existing infrastructure within those areas is almost impossible to reconstruct.  The “TransMilenio” case reminded me of how Beijing, a city with population of over 20 million[1], has fought for the better functioning of its commuter transit system.

Within the last decade, Beijing’s population has grown by over 6 million, more than doubling the rate of  increase of the previous decade. The huge influx of population inevitably burdened the then existing commuting system. In 2000, there were only two subway lines in Beijing; one spreading from east to west and the other circling the central district. Population increase has lead to urbanization and scaled economic growth that accelerated the increase in the number of private cars.  The limited capacity of commuting system was obviously too outdated to accommodate the fast growth of population. Starting in 2001, the city began to expand its subway system from two lines to now fifteen lines.  In the same year, Beijing was designated to host 2008 Summer Olympic Games, which significantly fueled the progress.[2]

Beijing Subway Map

Beijing Subway Map

But merely adding layers to the subway system was not enough to reduce congestion and air pollution, as the number of cars continued to grow.  The expansion of highways and locals were insufficient to release the burden because many motorists were unwilling to circle around, and in rush hours, even the most distant routes could be congested too.

The measures taken to reduce congestion in Beijing seemed against theory but quite effective in practice. During 2008 Summer Olympic Games, the city ruled that cars had to alternate to drive on even and odd days to give way to the athletes and relevant officials. The mechanism continued to take effect after the Games, except for the number of days restricted to drive reduced from three days per week to one day per week. For example, if your license plate number ends with three or eight, you would not be allow to drive on Wednesdays from 7:00-20:00. The days restricted for different numbers rotate every month. Another measure was in response to the growing number of cars. Starting 2011, car buyers are required to enter a lottery for a number plate, a measure leaving a million-long queue to buy a new car in Beijing[3].  In addition, China plans to subsidize six billion RMB to encourage purchases of small-displacement and environmental friendly vehicles. The plan intends to boost sales in these markets and reduce the average air pollution of each unit sold.

Managing the transportation of such fast growing and populated city is not an easy task.  Whether the measures mentioned above could take effect in longer term is still questionable, and if it is a good idea to limit population influx at some point in the future. How do we balance urbanization and its drawbacks is a question that needs further discussion.

2 thoughts on “Beijing Commuting System: Challenges And Reactions In Urbanization

  1. I was in Beijing in 2001. The subway system was a joke among me & my friends. “You walk 45 minutes to the east-west line, take it to the circle line, then get in a cab the rest of the way..”

    The subsequent expansion of the system was explosive. I could barely believe it (and I still haven’t been back to try it out). As an illustration of how crazy this growth really is, I put together a simple interactive map. Try it out by dragging the light gray square at the top of the page.

    • By John Macomber

      Nowadays when I’m in Beijing I always take the subway. It can be a little bit of a walk to the stations (they are all major pieces of construction) but I find the subway to be faster than waiting in traffic and also to be cheaper, cleaner, and to generally have more understandable English directions than for example New York City or certainly BART in San Francisco or figuring out the Charlie Card in my home town. A lot happened in Beijing after China’s accession to the WTO and after being chosen to host the Olympics (both of which happened while my family and I were in China, also in 2001, the October just after 9/11…the United Airlines planes had plenty of vacant seats)!

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