Subway travels: A tale of two cities

Updated: 2011-05-27 07:29

By Li Xing (China Daily)

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East is East, West is West, but riding the subway is pretty much the same wherever you go.

Four years ago, my husband and I rode Line 5 in Beijing the second day after it opened. In less than six months, it had reached its capacity of more than 400,000 passengers a day. By the end of last year, the number of riders had reached 650,000 a day, and the city had initiated crowd control during rush hours.

Although two more subway lines have been added to Beijing's public transit network, they do not seem to have eased the crowds.

Early one morning in March, I rode the No 5 and No 10 subway lines from the northern Fourth Ring Road to the Henan Hotel in the southeastern part of the city. I didn't even try to get on the first train that arrived; I managed to squeeze onto the second train but the door almost cut me in half when it closed.

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People say I am lucky because my office is within walking distance of my home. Some of my colleagues tell me that they feel they "lose their dignity" when riding the subway during rush hour. However much they want to help improve the environment, they'd rather drive and get stuck in traffic than endure the subway crowds.

I understand that the Beijing municipal government is doing all it can to ease crowding and make the subway more comfortable for commuters.

But after living in Washington for a month, I'm almost homesick for the Beijing subway.

Washington's Metro is currently undergoing repairs and maintenance, and the service is more haphazard than usual, particularly during off-peak periods.

On Saturday evening, my husband, daughter, and I attempted to take the Red Line after shopping in Chinatown. The station was packed; an electronic sign advised us that we would have to wait for 18 minutes for the next train.

People continued to pour onto the platform, and we felt the temperature rise. We were drenched with perspiration when the train finally came. We managed to board the crowded car. At the next stop, even more people entered. I began to wonder if we'd be able to make it to the door at the next stop.

As soon as the train got under way, we started to make our way toward the door, pressing forward and saying "excuse me". The people in front of us were polite and tried to let us through, but there was very little room.

"Don't worry, we will get you out," one young woman declared, although she was standing beside a door that would not open at our stop. It turned out that with just a little pushing, we were able to squeeze our way out at our stop.

This was not the first time that I found myself in a packed subway car in DC. The previous Saturday, riders had to wait for more than 35 minutes to get on the Blue Line. I was able to get into the car only because a woman pushed me in ahead of her.

I didn't hear anyone complain, nor have I read any criticism of the service cutbacks. In this, residents in Beijing have much to learn from their peers in Washington.

However, our experience on the Red Line made us wonder if we want to venture onto the Metro again during the weekend.

The author is China's Daily's Assistant Editor-in-Chief and Chief US Correspondent. E-mail:

(China Daily 05/27/2011 page8)