Rush Hour Underground


Your first thought upon approaching the escalator leading down into the mouth of the Beijing subway system is that this will be a descent into chaos.  At rush hour, people bustle past in an endless stream, texting, talking, and deftly dodging any slow-moving obstacles that have stopped to take in the scene.  Surely underground, you think, the true anarchy begins.

But take a deep breath, head underground and a new reality will quickly take shape.  The tile floors are clean, glossy bulletins advertise sports drinks and luxury brands, and it is brighter below ground than in the broad daylight above.  Foot traffic moves purposefully, guided by waist-high white metal dividers that control direction without blocking visibility. It’s not chaos.  It’s a very thoughtfully engineered space.

So buy a ticket and let’s begin.  You can buy single tickets from the vending machines (there is an English setting) but if you’ll be in Beijing for more than a day or two it’s absolutely worth getting a Yikatong (or “Transportation Smart Card”) from the staffed ticket counter.  You pay a small deposit for the card itself, refundable as long as you don’t somehow set it on fire or otherwise damage it, and then load it up with as much RMB as you like.  A little goes a long way since any subway trip – regardless of how many transfers you make or how long a distance you travel – is a whopping 2 RMB (about $0.33).


The next thought that becomes clear is that you would really have to make an effort to go the wrong way.  There are large wall-mounted maps detailing the entire subway network in both Chinese and English.  Same for the overhead signs – all train platforms, exits, and restrooms are clearly marked in both languages with arrows sending you in the right direction.  The signs are reassuringly abundant – you can’t not see one.  Often they are coded in universal symbols and colors (e.g.,  X = don’t go this way; green = go this way).  Does looking up at things make you feel short?  There are arrows on the floor for you.  Do words and arrows exhaust you?  Let’s follow the 563,989 people around you, they seem to be headed somewhere.

Can you figure out which way to go?

Can you figure out which way to go?

They make it pretty obvious, and that's a good thing.

They make it pretty obvious, and that’s a good thing.

Right this way!

Once you actually reach your subway platform, more generous direction awaits.   Large, bilingual signs with simple graphics show you the direction of the train, the stops along the way, and which of those stops are transfer stations.   Even if you did not speak Chinese or English, the images are truly so straighforward that as long as you know your numbers up to 17 (the current number of subway lines) and grasp the concept of arrows you could probably figure it out.  As one Chinese planner told me, “A picture is the most useful language.”

All the necessary information distilled into the  simplest form.

All the necessary information distilled into the simplest form.

Join an amoeba of people standing near the train.  When the next train arrives (usually no more than 3-5 minutes), don’t worry if the car looks full.  There is always room for one or ten more, especially at rush hour.  Don’t push or be rude; this is an orderly herd migration, not the Pamplona Running of the Bulls.  Just keep shuffle steadily forward with small steps and accept that your idea of personal space may be re-defined.  We’re all friends in here – very, very close friends.


Great job!  You’re on your way and now it’s time to kick back and relax.  If you can move your arms, feel free to text or check your Weibo – you’ve got service.  You can follow along with the illuminated schematic near every door while the nice lady on the speakers as she reads the stop names (a surprisingly great way to learn Chinese pronunciation), or enjoy public service announcements and the occasional kitten video on the TV screens.

You could also take a moment to appreciate a system that seems to have been designed by people who genuinely want their passengers to get where they are going – every last *2.46 billion of them – and through their use of straighforward graphics, redundant directional guidance, consistent bilingual signage, simple directional barriers, and $0.33 fare, the Beijing Subway enables them to do so with great confidence and minimal expense.

*Annual ridership, 2012.  ( Beijing Statistical Information Net. 2013-02-07. Retrieved 2013-07-18.)

** Photos not taken during rush hour to avoid being trampled.

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One thought on “Rush Hour Underground

  1. dsdauphin says:

    Excellent post Rebecca! I have both fond and less than fond memories of using Beijing’s subways, and your post definitely reminds me of the former! It really is an impressive system.

    Have you used the buses much yet? They’re also an interesting experience. The bus I remember riding there had a ticket/help desk in the back where the woman tried to help me figure out which stop I got off to go to a cooking class. Eventually she asked a young professional woman over and she spoke English enough to help me find my way.

    I’m sure Colin has a lot of stories. He explored every mode of transportation in Beijing!

    Keep the great posts coming!


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