It can be crowded and uncomfortable much of the time, but public transportation is the best way to go in China. For many Westerners, especially Americans, this adds to the complete change and culture shock they experience upon arriving here.
I am from California, the land of six lane highways and cities designed not for public transportation, but for each person to drive their own car even if you're arriving to the same destination. Americans love their cars and the freedoms that come with the open road; dependence on foreign oil and rising fuel prices still haven't forced the majority of Americans to change their habits. The farther West you travel in the U.S., the less public transportation you will see, with the exception of the San Fransisco bay area.
Despite a recent dip in auto sales , China is still the number one auto market in the world. Chinese culture defines "success" as someone who has a spouse, a house, a child, a well paying job and now a car. When I arrived in China three years ago, I was shocked at the number of cars and the traffic jams I saw. I knew car sales were booming but I still expected to see more bicycles. A Chinese friend told me her family had waited three months for their car to arrive after purchasing it. She drove it too my apartment building to show it off and then said there was too much traffic, so "maybe they would just use it on the weekends to drive in the country." Later she said her husband had buyer's remorse, car ownership wasn't all he thought it would be. So, the couple still uses public transportation to get to work and ride their bicycles for errands.
Public transportation in China is the way to go. There's a lot of things in China that don't make sense to foreigners, but the one thing that does is the public transportation system. Beijing and Shanghai have easy to use subways that stop at all major areas and destinations. Even Beijing Starbucks Coffee locations have free subway maps in Chinese and English. Buses are also convenient, but take a little more work to figure out since signs and maps do not have English or Pin-yin ( standard system of romanized spelling for transliterating Chinese).
|Beijing Subway Map (Click to enlarge)|
If you do not speak Chinese, don't worry. Chances are you won't be straying too far from home or the big touristy areas right away. But it's always a good idea to ask those in the know, "Where's the subway stop?" ( 地铁站那里？or, dì dìtiě zhàn nǎlǐ?) when getting directions or meeting up with someone.
Things you should know when using buses or the subway
- Effort is being made to teach Chinese people to queue for the bus and subway. Progress is slow, so don't expect it. It's every man (or woman) for yourself.
- Subways and buses are not available 24 hours. Lines for both tend to run 6:00am-11:00am.
- Reserved seats are clearly marked for the disabled, elderly, pregnant women and those travelling with small children.
- Anyone who fits into the above categories will most likely expect you to take a seat if it available as a way to show hospitality to a foreigner. But make it clear you wish for them to sit as a courtesy to them. This contributes to a favorable view of foreigners and shows respect.
- Most subway attendants can speak a little English, at least enough to help a lost foreigner.
- For frequent city travel buy a convenient transportation card, it works for buses and subways. They are available at subway stations for a minimum of 20rmb.
- Try not to travel during peak times. Rush hours are 7:00am-9:00am and 5:00pm-7:00pm.
- If you have a medical emergency, DO NOT use the bus or subway, it's best to take a Taxi. See "In Case of Emergency".
- It gets crowded. This means there's no such thing as personal space. It's ok not to say "excuse me" or "pardon me", and use your elbows if needed.
|Shanghai subway map|
What has your public transportation experience been like? Feel free to share!