Beijing Subway Rider Experience

Our first destination in China allowed us the opportunity to experience public transit in China - via the Beijing subway system. As part of my ongoing commitment to the MBTA Rider Oversight Committee, I have collected some notes on our experience and written some recommendations for the MBTA on what it can learn from Beijing's subway.

A Rapidly Growing System

One of my urban planning courses in college looked at big projects in cities, including big events like hosting the Olympic games. Public transit of great importance in a candidate city's Olypimic bid. Candidate cities must convince the International Olympic Committee it has a robust enough public transit system to support the games (or will have one by the time the games come to town). Proposals to the IOC by candidate cities often include plans for future subway and public transit expansion. Beijing's successful 2008 Summer Games bid was no exception. Major expansion of the subway was done in preparation to host the games and the construction continued in the years after the games.

(Similar discussions of public transit expansion in Boston would need to take place if Boston is to move beyond the American shortlist as a candidate for the 2024 games.)

I knew that Beijing's subway expanded rapidly for the 2008 games and in the years after, but until I did some research, I did not realize how much it has expanded.

In 2000, Beijing had 2 subway lines.

By the 2008 games, Beijing had 6 subway lines.

Today, Beijing has 17 subway lines.

Currently, 7 more lines are in construction and 4-6 more in planning stages.

Map of the Beijing Subway. Be careful -- by the time you read this they may have added more lines.

These numbers are unbelievable. Living in a city that had delayed the Somerville Green Line Extension multiple times and has axed the Red Line/Blue Line connector project (among others), it's a marvel to be in a city that has expanded subways so extensively and so rapidly. In 15 years Beijing has gone from a small two line operation to the second largest subway system in the world servicing well over 3 billion rides a year.

China and Beijing have a lot of reasons to expand subway ridership, facing not only the congestion problems of any major urban center but also the ever present smog for which the city has become notorious. Major funding for the expansion has come in two waves, first as a part of massive investment for the Olympic games and second as a part of a ¥4 trillion (about $650 billion) stimulus package in 2008.

An in car map of Line 8 of the Beijing subway. Station lit green have not yet been reached. Transfer stations are very clearly marked.

I know that expansion like this is enabled by the governmental structure and policies of China and that extensive expansion in the United States like this would have a series of hurdles to jump that do not exist in China, but that does not dampen my awe at the work of the Chinese government.

Rider Experience

The newness of most of the Beijing subway lines means that the stations and cars are modern. Trains run extremely frequently and we never found ourselves waiting more than 6-7 minutes for a train, even during off peak hours. Most of the time we were only at a station 1-3 minutes before boarding.

A picture of the in car map on Line 2, the older of the two loop lines in the Beijing subway system. (Click to enlarge) The green light is the next station. Transfer stations are clearly marked. Note the light under the sign "Door Opens Opposite Side" signifying that the opposite doors will open at the next station. Also note the "Counter-Clockwise Loop" light signifying the direction the train is traveling. The red gate in the middle of map denotes Tiananmen Gate at the very center of the city. This icon appears on full subway system maps and maps of lines that go near the square.

The sparse in subway TVs feature information useful to the rider as well as ads and TV programs. These monitors were also used for several public service announcements.

Every pillar and wall in the stations are used to distribute information, whether it be maps of the line you are on or maps of the entire system. It was always easy to find a map of where we were going. Vendors and performance are banned in stations, as is eating and drinking, but all stations and lines feature cell phone service. Both voice and data service extend through all the tunnels, allowing riders to call, text, or surf the internet on their phones while traveling on a train underground.

Station exit signage not only features the letter of the exit, but the cardinal direction as well

Repeating a very useful practice I saw in Japan, exits to subways are individually identified. Exits are given a letter. Outside of station exits there is a local map that features photos of nearby landmarks to help orient riders.

Note how the map not only shows the local area but also small photos of nearby landmarks to help orient riders

Fares are a flat ¥2 (about $0.32) for any subway ride with the exception of the airport express line which is ¥25 (about $4.08). All riders are subject to a security check upon entering the subway station, something I discuss more in the rider experience overview video above.

Recommendations for the MBTA

To become the best system possible, the MBTA should seek to learn from other public transit systems. Based on my experience in Beijing, I recommend the following:

  • Label subway exits with a number or letter. This practice has been useful in every system we've visited in Japan and now in Beijing as well.
  • Make dynamic in car maps a requirement for the new Red and Orange Line cars. The MBTA has began the process of acquiring new Red and Orange Line cars. The maps in the Beijing subway that light up as you move from stop to stop are incredibly useful as a rider. It should be a requirement of the new Red and Orange Line cars that they include some type of dynamic map system. This could either be a map that lights up signifying which stations have been reached or a screen that can list the next and upcoming stations.
  • Add photos of local landmarks to maps outside subway stations. Beijing was the first time I had seen this practice and it proved very helpful.
  • Consider a deposit for Charlie Cards. If not a deposit, a minimum load balance for first purchase. I know that the MBTA has considered this before, but I think it's an idea that has enough merit to seriously consider again as the MBTA has found itself distributing more Charlie Cards than it originally expected to.

If you have any questions about Beijing's subway or questions you want me to check out at other subways as we continue our travel, please feel free to leave them in the comments.