Beijing Metro

Recently I took my 200th trip on the Beijing Metro. I know because I used up the fourth 100RMB charge on my Metro card, below. (Rides are for now 2RMB apiece, about 28 cents, regardless of distance.) Actually, the 200th ride since the metro finished its switch from paper tickets to magnetic cards early this year.

The card, like its owner, is beginning to show the wear and tear of life in the big city. That's its peeling-off plastic covering in the upper right corner. But, having complained every now and then about certain imperfections of urban life in Beijing, let me take this opportunity to remark on what a miraculous change the rapidly-expanding metro has wrought in a very short time.

As recently as the middle of last year, the subway system didn't go many places -- and could be ferociously crowded when it went there. (I am thinking mainly of Line 1 at rush hour, as locals will know.) Here's how the route system looked when we arrived:


The map below shows the working system as of now -- the interesting detail being that lines 5, 8, and 10 have come into operation on our (brief) watch here in Beijing. They are the magenta, green, and light blue lines, respectively. (Also, the "airport express," the diagonal red line heading to the northeast.)
Line 10 in particular is nothing less than a godsend. My wife and I live in the "Central Business District" at the Guomao intersection, right at the place where the horizontal red line crosses the vertical light-blue line on the map above. Before line 10 opened in July, getting to two other main parts of town I visit many times per week -- the "Kempinski"/Sanlitun/Gongti area two miles or so straight north, and the university/high-tech "Haidian" district several miles to the northwest -- could be done only by driving (bus or taxi), and through traffic so unpredictably horrible that you had to allow an hour or two if you wanted to be there on time. Now the Kempinski-etc area is a few quick stops north on Line 10, and the far northwest Peking U /Tsinghua U /Google/ Microsoft areas involve just one change of subway lines. That still takes 45 minutes -- but it's dependable, and you're not sitting in a taxi worrying.

And more is underway. Here is the route plan for three-plus years from now, with a lot of cross-town and zig-zag routes that will make a huge difference in land travel:


What's my point? First, recognizing something good that's happened in a city about which I and many others often complain. And second: Wonder if infrastructure and public-transport improvements can make a difference in basic livability? Yes they can.

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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.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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