On Those Beijing Transport Videos

A foreign (ie, non-Chinese) reader living in Beijing writes about yesterday's wonderful video of a young woman inventing a parking space for herself, and the less wonderful prospect of throngs fighting their way into a subway station:

I just wanted to let you know that I'm pretty sure the Chinese parking video is fake. It's just too convenient that these guys were looking for a parking space (and filming) right when this girl came out and pulled her stunt. There's another one out there where the girl pulls into an impossibly small space and climbs out of her sun roof, with what must be the same two guys doing the commentary (Wo cao! Look at that!).

Thumbnail image for SubwayJam-thumb.jpgAs for the Tiantongyuan photo (right), it's definitely astonishing. My reading of it, however, is a bit different from the guys at Sinocism. Tiantongyuan is a suburban station, the second to last as you head north on line 5. One of the reasons you have to wait 40 minutes for a train in the morning is because the droves of young workers fueling Beijing's economy are mostly forced to live in the far-flung suburbs where the housing is more affordable. I don't have the stats on hand, but if I remember the last census report correctly, out of nearly 20 million people in Beijing, less than 2 million live within the second ring road (Dongcheng and Xicheng districts).

 I live in Dongcheng, a short walk from the Chaoyangmen, Dongsi Shitiao and Dongsi stations. The basements in my apartment complex are full of young workers sleeping on bunk beds, about the only affordable way to live that close to the center. I often have to push very hard to get on a train at Chaoyangmen, but I've never had to wait in line for 40 minutes.

 I'd say that Beijing public transit is having a hard time keeping up with things, but this is as much a failure of urban management in general (especially zoning and affordable housing) as it is a transportation failure.

On the "fake" possibility: like the truth about Santa, this is disappointing to contemplate but has a certain ring of plausibility. On the point about armies of workers-in-motion, that sounds right to me, fwiw, and corresponds to things I've seen. I've been amazed by the same crowds at the furthest-out stops on the subway lines, where there are bus or train transfers from more remote areas. I've also often seen workers sleeping wherever they can find a space.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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