You're reading

The gruelling, six-hour commute of Beijing’s workers


On some days, Zhang Xia spends more time commuting to work than she does in the office.

The 39-year-old marketing manager lives in Yanjiao, a bustling city packed with residential high rises, found east of Beijing in northern China. She is one of hundreds of thousands of white-collar workers who spend on average six hours – and sometimes up to nine hours or more – travelling to and from Beijing to work each day.

The capital’s soaring property market is pricing thousands of young workers out of the city and into commuter towns like Yanjiao. According to a 2016 report by the Global Cities Business Alliance, Beijing is the world’s most expensive city for renters, with average prices 1.2 times higher than average salaries. Prices are also soaring for those looking to buy – in the twelve months to September last year, property prices rose by 28%.

Because owning a home in Beijing is not an option for most people, many live in on the outskirts in ‘sleeper’ cities – so named because office workers travel there just to sleep where property is more affordable.

Two decades ago Yanjiao was a collection of half a dozen farming villages and home to 30,000 people. Today it is a city in its own right, with close to a million residents. In the mornings, queues of young, mid-income professionals line the streets in the dark, waiting to be bussed into the capital. Its bus terminals have become bases for commuter-dependent economies – street vendors fry up meals to serve the army of workers before dawn, and in the evenings, unlicensed taxi drivers circle subway stations, car-pooling workers home.

According to a 2013 Chinese government survey, Beijing residents spend on average 52 minutes on the road to work each day. Those living outside with considerably longer commutes just try to make the most of it – Zhang passes the time by reading MBA lectures and taking online courses. “When I first did this journey I felt it wasted lots of time. But now I look at it in a different way,” she says.

Watch the video above to experience a day in the life of a ‘sleeper city’ commuter. Video by Danny Vincent and Courtney Casatuta.

To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, please head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

Around the bbc