The Beijing subway is the worst subway in the world

The Beijing subway (or Beijing ditie) is the worst subway system in the world. A lot of people (usually tourists and newcomers) are shocked when I point out this fact, mistaking its many shiny, new train cars and stations for great public transportation. However, when I remind them of how long it takes to transfer between lines and the distances required to just get to a station, they start to reconsider. Indeed, the Beijing subway is the exact opposite of what urban public transport should be, and that is efficient.

Don’t believe me? Consider Dongzhimen station.

Dongzhimen: a case in bad urban planning.

Dongzhimen used to be a major gateway into the walled-city of Beijing; it is now a major transit hub sitting at the northeast corner of the Second Ring Road. Dongzhimen Bridge refers to the overpass where Dongzhimen Street—a six-lane thoroughfare running east-west, with additional two-lane (plus parking!) side roads—crosses over the Second Ring Road, which itself is six lanes wide with side roads and side roads for its side roads. And don’t forget the bike lanes that can double as extra car lanes if needed! Naturally, the interchange between these two streets is a convoluted mess, made worse by the millions of awful drivers populating the city.

Subway-wise, Dongzhimen serves as an interchange for Lines 2 and 13, as well as the terminus for the Airport Express line. Based on the subway map, it is by all accounts the same station. If you wanted to go to the airport from, say, Jianguomen, you would simply hop on Line 2 and then change to the Airport Express at Dongzhimen. The transfer requires a bit of walking, but you would stay safely within the confines of the subway’s underground tunnels. It would cost you RMB 3 for the subway ride from Jianguomen to Dongzhimen, and another RMB 25 for the Airport Express ride from Dongzhimen to PEK. Convenient!

But let’s say you lived on the southwest corner of Dongzhimen Bridge and you wanted to take the Airport Express. Most Beijing subway stations have an entrance on each corner of the intersection, so you would think that you could just enter Dongzhimen station using the southwest corner entrance, the one closest to where you live, thus avoiding having to risk your life crossing some 16 lanes of traffic without any signalized pedestrian crossings or even just traffic lights. You could do this, but the Beijing subway will charge you three Chinese bucks to enter the subway at Dongzhimen station, “exit” the subway at Dongzhimen station, and then get on the subway’s Airport Express line at —where else?—Dongzhimen station. At no point do you go above-ground, and again, you’re ostensibly still at the same exact station.

The Beijing subway will charge you three Chinese bucks to enter the subway at Dongzhimen station, “exit” the subway at Dongzhimen station, and then get on the subway’s Airport Express line at—where else?—Dongzhimen station.

What if you lived on the southeast corner? You can’t even cross the road to get to the lone Airport Express entrance from street level, located on the northeast corner of the bridge, because they’ve put up median barriers. So you’d have to enter Dongzhimen station at the southeast entrance (stairs only), go through a long, secret underground passageway involving more stairs, come back out the northeast entrance (stairs only), and then go back down from the Airport Express entrance (who knows where the elevator is). Good luck if you have a load of luggage!

So thanks to the subway’s terrible design and contrary to common sense, there is no way a person could use a Line 2 entrance at Dongzhimen to get to the Airport Express at Dongzhimen. I know that, like me, many people have found this illogical because at the ticket booth at the southwest exit, the staff have a tiny laminated card explaining in Chinglish that no, you can’t go directly to the Airport Express from this entrance, you have to go back outside and enter from the Airport Express entrance or pay an extra RMB 3 to enter from here. So apparently enough people have asked them how to get to the Airport Express that they had to write up a note explaining the illogical layout of the station.

Ergo, the Beijing subway is the worst subway in the world.

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