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Reflections on Beijing's underground labyrinth
By William Daniel Garst (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-11-18 15:22

Reflections on Beijing's underground labyrinth

What a difference three years make! When I first moved to Beijing in August 2006, the city had three subway lines - 13, 2 and 1. Stations of Line 1 and Line 2 were and still are scruffy. Commuters had to line up and buy paper tickets before riding the subway.

Beijing now has four new lines - the 4, 5, 8, and 10 - along with the Airport Express. Line 4 is an especially welcome expansion of the network. In addition to taking passengers directly to the Beijing Zoo, Old and New Summer Palaces, and East Gate of Peking University, it drops them off right at the China National Geology Museum. And thanks to Line 10, I can live in Sanlitun and not have a horribly long commute to my workplace, which is near the Bird's Nest Stadium.

These new subway lines all boast bright and clean stations. Many of them, notably the Lama Temple, Tiantang, Peking University, and Old and New Summer Palace stations, are attractively themed to reflect their destinations.

With the partial exception of Line 1, air-conditioned trains have replaced the older rolling stock. This is a big improvement - riding in a packed subway train is bad enough, but riding in one whose passengers are perspiring profusely for want of air conditioning is downright unbearable. Finally, regular commuters can now swipe their transit cards at automated turnstiles.

With the new 4, 5, and 10 lines, one can get to most places in central Beijing. The subway is usually the quickest way to get from one place to another. And the 2-yuan fare per ride is cheap, particularly compared with riding the subway in New York or London.

There is thus much that I love about the new and significantly improved Beijing subway system. However, there are still some things I really dislike.

One of my big pet peeves is layout of certain subway stations. These include even newer ones like the Huixinjie Nankou interchange station of Lines 5 and 10. During rush hour the narrow stairwell leading from Line 10 to Line 5 is completely jammed. One must choose either to join the crush or wait at least five minutes for the slowly moving masses to shuffle down the stairs.

But this is a minor inconvenience compared with the Xizhimen station. Commuters changing from Line 13 to Line 2 still make a long loop around the outside of the station. This stroll takes 10-plus minutes and passengers reenter the station at the same place they left it.

While the trains are jammed much of the time, I try to maintain a Zen attitude. Increasing subway ridership is good for the environment. I also shudder to think what Beijing's streets would be like if all those subway commuters behaved like Americans and drove everywhere.

However, my tolerance is frequently pushed to its limits by the behavior of many riders. People routinely stand in front of doors blocking other passengers from exiting compartments. Others leave heavy bags near the door or in the middle of the car for exiting passengers to trip over. But worst of all is what happens when an empty train pulls up. Passengers crowd around the doors and then madly dash in order to get a seat. I've seen people, including older passengers, knocked down during this mad scramble. (I am, however, impressed by how often young people give up their seats for older folks and women with young children).

Indeed, the public announcement system in Line 4 stations admonishes passengers to avoid such behavior. However, more needs to be done to encourage civility on the subway. It should be an efficient and eco-friendly way of getting to places, not a venue for people to sharpen their jostling and shoving skills.