August 14, 2019

Why We Should Look More Closely at Beijing Subways

When Gordon recently posted a short item about plans to use facial recognition to speed Chinese subway users through ticket gates, I was actually riding those subways in Chengdu and Beijing.

What the story didn’t say is that the delays at the subways aren’t at the turnstiles, but at the adjacent “Security Check” where every passenger has his or her bags, purses, or backpacks x-rayed, and undergoes a wand scan for prohibited items. Millions of these checks are a part of daily life in China at subways, museums, offices, and public places.

Along with the ubiquitous video cameras, ID checks, and security personnel we found that they just became part of the routine after a couple of days.

China security cameras

Six cameras visible, and four more on the other side.

Tiananmen Square is a good example of Chinese life. After passing through Security at the perimeter, you’re immediately being watched by hundreds of video cameras on every lamp post and building.

While it made me feel somewhat uncomfortable, our Chinese hosts actually described them as a positive thing, saying “There are lots of cameras, and they use face recognition to spot problems. That’s why it’s so safe in Beijing; there’s almost no crime.”

Reference was then made of Tibetan monks who had set themselves on fire in the square, and how that didn’t happen any longer.

Surveillance and the police state excepted, the Chinese subway systems are in most ways superior to the Skytrain. This was demonstrated when I returned home and found a Chengdu mother and child at the YVR Skytrain station struggling to figure out how to get to Surrey and how much it would cost. Once I helped her get her tickets she rode with me to the Waterfront station, out one set of turnstiles, up an elevator and around a newspaper kiosk, into another set of turnstiles, then was pointed to the Expo line. After a fifteen hour flight that was far more complex than any traveller should have to deal with.

Also, a trip for two from YVR to Waterfront that would have cost the woman and her son maybe 8 RMB in Chengdu ($1.50 today) was $17.20! (91.50 RMB!) I’m sure she felt very welcome on her first visit to Vancouver!

Beijing metro ticket machineThe Chengdu subway system is expanding rapidly (as is Beijing’s) to more than two dozen lines, but it’s easier to use than Vancouver’s three subway lines. The ticket machines all feature a big “English” button, after which it’s incredibly simple. The touchscreen displays where you are in the system. All that you do is select the line that you need to reach, and tap the station that you want to go to, and the machine tells you exactly what it will cost.

No more trying to figure out from a static printed map whether you’re going two zones or three, and whether you’re in or out of peak times, then translating that into choosing a fare. It’s easy.

(Of course the locals never go near a ticket machine, and just tap through with their phones. In a country where most people use WeChat dozens of times each day to make purchases and order services it’s the only natural way to pay.)

China subway map

Everywhere you turn you’ll find a complete map of the line that you’re travelling showing which station you’re at, which direction the train is travelling, and the name of the next station. It would be hard to be unsure where you’re going. That map in repeated in every car, over every door, with lights that turn on as you travel along the route.

China Subway map

Again it’s utterly easy with none of that “Oh no, did we miss a stop?” feeling. Newer cars also have a video screen at each door that repeats where you are and what the next stop will be. In Mandarin and English.

Loumashi Station Chengdu Metro

The other fantastic thing that I can’t understand hasn’t been included in Skytrain design are the head-high plexiglass screens along the edge of each platform. As well as protecting riders from falling over the edge onto the tracks, the panels offer yet again detailed information about where you are, right down to the car and door number.

Given the very slow pace of Chinese automobile traffic, and the difficulty in buying and licencing a car, it’s well worth learning that the “D” sign means “Subway” and that it’s easy to travel using transit. That’s especially true if you’re using a guidebook like the Lonely Planet series that includes the subway stop with most listings.

Featured image: Wenyanglu station platform, by N509FZ, CC BY-SA 4.0

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  1. Density comes with benefits. Why are we not digging the UBC line all the way to UBC yet ?

    Indeed the YVR 3 zone pass is a bit of a ripoff for unsuspecting tourists who could easily buy a Compass Card and save right away, but it is carefully hidden.

    1. Because the $7b needed to build the whole thing isn’t spilling out of anyone’s pockets yet. And the continual moaning over the imperfect delivery of the Canada Line makes politicians skittish about tunneling under or near populated corridors. Build it fast, but don’t ruffle a single feather. Government is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.

      Skytrain is great, but boy, couldn’t it be better. Beijing has 30 times the population of Vancouver. Anyone admitting to wanting to live in France should be politely acknowledged as a crackpot. Buck up.

      1. Apparently Paris is “better”

        N Shore, E-Van and towards UBC (plus soon, JerichoLands as Vancouver’s newest and largest development) needs far FAR better RAPID transit for ever growing housing construction, not just “green” diesel buses .. a fast dedicated bus corridor with e-buses might be a better greener alternative than tunneling but in areas with high land prices thinking 3D as opposed to 2D (ie above or below) !!

        1. Paris has four times the population density to support it. You’d be more consistent if you didn’t keep making excuses for those who want to live in a big house with a big yard while still wanting the kind of transit that only high density justifies.

    2. What density, Beyer? The west side is not dense – it is the opposite of dense. UBC is not dense – it’s sprawly as hell. Central Broadway is barely beginning to be dense enough to justify a subway. What we have is too many people commuting too far due to poor urban planning, a century of selling the dystopian “American Dream” and land use hijacked by the creme. We’re justifying a subway to fix a problem that doesn’t require a subway to fix. A subway merely masks the problem and ignores the root cause. It is a perfect symbol of what is wrong with our society in general.

      We justify the subway based on speed when speed wouldn’t be necessary if so many people weren’t commuting so far. We hear about accommodating the UBC student who lives in Coquitlam or Surrey. Absurd! Subways are justified when the ground plane can no longer accommodate the transportation needs of a dense population. We’re laughably far away from that anywhere but downtown.

      1. So you’re suggesting kids who live in Surrey or Coquitlam shouldn’t be allowed to go to UBC? Only the creme who live on the west side or downtown? Nice.

        1. I am suggesting no such thing. Are you suggesting that kids who live in Chilliwack should get a SkyTrain to UBC? Who pays for absurdly over-built transit to serve those who flee density and good transit? At some point it’s better for everybody to live closer to your daily activities even if temporarily.

        2. A little context using Thomas’s link. Paris, for example, has almost 5 times the population 4 times the number of universities and 2.7 times more rapid transit kilometers. That all seems reasonably proportional even as Vancouver has nearly double the rapid transit per capita of the second busiest transit system in the biggest city in Europe. In itself that might be a good thing for Vancouver.

          But the average length of their rapid transit lines is half the average length of our SkyTrain lines at 13.4 km to our 26.3. They having a highly networked system with a full 62 transfer stations out of 302. Do you think they’re whining about university access with half the metro that we have? And we’re preparing to sprawl our absurdly lanky three lines way out even farther? Our current system of SkyTrain development rewards and encourages sprawl.

  2. Interesting article but I would rather put up with metro Vancouver’s spotty Skytrain/subway lines then all the surveillance going on in China, notably Beijing. We need to pause and protect our Freedoms rather than rush into new rapid technologies that reduce us to “cogs” in an urban machine.

  3. Riding the Skytrain, I am always struck by the lack of clarity at the ticket machines, of the announcements on the train, of directions at stations and even with the station. The question always is: “Why on earth didn’t they research how other world cities design rapid transit to accommodate passengers unfamiliar with the system?” In other words, just like many of the highway directions here, the subway is designed for people who already know their way around. It wouldn’t have cost anything more, and the payoff in public satisfaction would have been compensation for just a bit more imaginative effort to plan signage and announcements.
    As for the additional security at stations, it’s true that people in Israel, London, Paris, Beijing and other places where terrorism is a factor of daily living actually do welcome the checks for their own protection. It’s hard to understand that when you live in a place like Vancouver, which is enough of a global backwater to feel safe without this kind of surveillance.