On Those Beijing Transport Videos

By James Fallows

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/08/on-those-beijing-transport-videos/243509/