For those who don’t know Beijing well, when I first moved here in 2002 the city was poorly served by its subway system. This huge and sprawling city only had two lines, one running along Chang’an jie, often called the “Champs-Elysées” of Beijing, which runs east-west through Tiananmen Square, and the other circling around the inner city where the old city walls used to be before they were knocked down – in the 1960s I think – below what is now the Second Ring Road.This whole idea of transit being only for people who can't afford a car isn't just an American thing. It annoys me no end personally, but I get that this really is a popular sentiment in many parts of the world.
Since then, and especially during the build-up to the Olympics in 2008, the city has exploded with subway lines so that Beijing has become, in my opinion, one of the best served cities in the world for its subway system. The outer districts of the city are not well-served by subway (although there are plenty of buses) but, within the city proper, getting around by subway is very easy and fairly quick, including all the way out to the Wudaokou District, where China’s two most famous universities, Peking University and Tsinghua University, as well as many famous and less famous schools, are located. I do most of my travel within the city by bicycle or taxi, but for longer trips I usually take the subway, from my home or office to the university, for example, because traffic in Beijing can be terrible and almost always takes a lot longer than the subway.
The real problem with driving I Beijing, by the way, is not just the traffic jams, but mainly the uncertainty about how long it can take to get anywhere. In Mexico, it seems to me, the traffic is horrible but predictable, so that you are pretty sure that you will be 45 minutes late for every meeting. In fact during my days as a Wall Street debt trader whenever I was in Mexico and arrived at a senior government official’s office fifteen minutes late, instead of apologizing profusely for being late I felt I had to apologize profusely for coming early. The secretary inevitably looked shocked and no one was prepared to meet me.
In Beijing, on the other hand, I have arrived at meetings anywhere from 20 minutes early to one hour late. It is really hard to predict how long a car trip might take. This makes the subway hugely valuable because you can usually time your trip to within 5-10 minutes.
As an aside, in Beijing someone as “important” as a PKU professor like me shouldn’t take the subway. It is low status. If you see a middle-aged well-dressed person on the subway (not that I am ever well-dressed) he is almost certain to be foreign. Two weeks ago for example I had been asked to join two very wealthy Chinese – one a billionaire, I think – for coffee. When I got up to leave to get to my class, one of them very kindly said he would have his chauffer pick me up immediately and take me to Peking University. When I thanked him and told him I didn’t really have time to take a car and would have to take the subway, both of them shot me shocked glances, and one of them even commented on my dedication.
(earthling177, I thought of you when I read his article. Prof. Pettis goes into detail about many points we've talked about: who wins and who loses from a flat fare vs. fares by distance, what considerations go into a minimum fare, and so forth.)