Asia

Beijing subway fare hike weighs on commuters

Chinese commuters crowd onto a subway car on the metro during rush hour on October 16, 2014 in Beijing, Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Commuters are facing higher fares as the cost of living in Beijing keeps rising

Spare a thought for the Beijing commuter. At the height of the morning rush hour, the subway resembles a battleground.

Millions of people are on the move, fighting to get to work, with barely any place to stand.

At the busiest stations, subway staff push commuters onto the trains, so the doors can close.

Beijing has one of the biggest and busiest subways in the world. More than eight million passengers ride it every day - the population of New York City.

And until now it had been one of the world's cheapest because of a massive government subsidy.

But with costs mounting the authorities have decided to pass on some of the burden to passengers.

Mixed feelings

Commuters will now pay for the distance they travel rather than a flat fare. That means the cost of the average journey will double from 2 yuan ($0.33; £0.21) to 4 yuan.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Some people say the subway is much more efficient than taking a bus in Beijing

With commuters crammed and squashed in together, the subway is a pretty democratic place. But the packed carriages also present a challenge to the government to ensure a decent quality of life.

Presumably aware of the possibility of a public outcry, the authorities have long talked about a subway fare increase. And that largely explains the relatively muted response underground.

"The subway was the last social benefit we were given," said Wang Di, 22, a salesman. "With the costs going up, I think it may increase congestion on the roads as more people take buses."

Online the reaction was more vociferous. One commuter denounced the government as "shameless". They asked: "How can you expect to reduce the pressure on the public transportation system simply by raising the prices?"

But another internet user said the price hike was "no big deal", writing: "Other cities have charged by distance for a long time. Why should Beijing be any different?"

Turbo-charged expansion

Beijing's subway was first opened in 1969. Chairman Mao Zedong had ordered its construction after seeing the Moscow subway on a visit to the Soviet Union.

But it was first envisaged more as a civil defence project rather than a public transport system. In the event of air-raids it could be used to evacuate people from the city.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption It's mainly the middle class that rely on the subway to move around

It's only been in the last decade or so as Beijing's population has swelled and its roads have become ever more chocked that the subway's construction began in turbo-charged Chinese fashion.

The subway is currently 465km (289 miles) long. By 2020, Chinese state media say it will more than double to 1,000 km - two and a half times the length of the London underground.

Many of those travelling on the subway are the capital's middle class.

Not necessarily wealthy but far better off than Beijing's army of migrant workers who have flooded in from the countryside. They mostly live in areas where there are no subway stops and use the cheaper buses.

Rising cost of living

The worst affected by the subway increase are those who cannot afford to live in the city centre but instead have a daily commute from the far-flung suburbs.

One of those facing a fare hike is Li Yue, 28, an account manager at a PR agency. It takes her an hour and a half to reach her office.

"When the prices go up, I'll need to pay 7 yuan instead of just 2 yuan," she said. "For me it's unavoidable. I could take the bus but the subway's way more efficient. But if it's more expensive maybe it will be less crowded - that would be good."

Ms Li, however, is lucky. Her boss has agreed to pay for the extra travel costs for all his staff.

"I joked with my employees, I'd even help them pay for their housing," said Han Jian. "Paying for their travel costs isn't such a big deal. I just want to keep my staff happy."

But most people riding the subway do not have such understanding bosses. Some will no longer be able to afford the underground.

As the cost of living keeps rising, those who can least afford it, are being squeezed the most. And as Beijing's population keeps growing so will the social pressures.

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