When a single mother was crushed to death while trying to get onto an overcrowded subway train in November, it pointed to a problem that transit officials in the Chinese capital had already promised to address.
They did so this week, raising subway fares as much as fourfold in what they said was an effort to reduce overcrowding.
That response, not surprisingly, has not been overwhelmingly popular.
“I still had to spend 15 minutes lining up outside my subway stop this morning before I could get into the station,” said Zheng Shenchen, who lives near the Tiantongyuan North station at the end of Line 5. “It looks like the government just needed an excuse to raise the price for subway tickets.”
Pan Xiaomei, a single mother from Chengde, Hebei province, died in early November, on a day when a record 9.3 million passengers flocked to Beijing’s subway system. Government restrictions that day kept half of Beijing’s automobiles off the streets to keep them clear for dignitaries in the capital for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
Pan, 33, was crushed after becoming trapped between a moving subway train and the safety door on the platform, after apparently failing to get into an overcrowded car.
Ridership that day wasn’t significantly higher than the system’s recent average of more than 9 million riders. (By comparison, New York City averages 7.7 million subway riders daily.) Beijing’s subway system has experienced explosive growth in recent years — and has become notoriously overcrowded as a result.
From having five subway lines that ran about 87 miles in 2007, when the city’s anywhere-you-can-ride subway pricing was introduced, Beijing today has 18 subway lines that cover more than 327 miles, after four new lines went into operation Sunday.
But with the expansion has come more riders, making the experience of riding a subway during rush hour nightmarish.
A video from the official China Central Television documenting the scene at Beijing’s Xierqi station during morning rush hour went viral last year. A subway worker whose job is to regulate passenger flow on the platform was pushed into the train several times by riders rushing to get in.
When local authorities said they planned to raise fares, solving the congestion problem was touted as one of the major benefits. A higher price “can help divert more passengers away from the subway to the buses,” the state-owned People’s Daily said in July.
Before the fare hike took effect Sunday, Beijing charged a flat fee of 32 cents for all rides, regardless of distance. The new fares begin at 48 cents and can go as high as $1.45, depending on how far a passenger travels.
Zheng, 26, who works for an Internet company 12 miles from his apartment in north Beijing, now pays more than double the old fare for his 50-minute morning commute. Still, he has no plans to take another mode of transportation.
“Taking the subway is the fastest way for me to get to my office,” he said. “Taking a bus is simply not an option with the traffic congestion on the roads in Beijing.”
In recent years, local authorities in Beijing have begun to hold public hearings about proposed price increases for basic daily necessities, including water, electricity and gas. But residents question how meaningful the hearings are, because prices are raised regardless.
When the public hearing on the subway fare hike took place in late October, 10 people were chosen to represent commuters. Such a hearing should have been “a chance for ordinary people to exercise their democratic rights,” wrote Zhang Hongliang, an economics professor from Minzu University in Beijing, in a blog post at the time. But in China, he said, the only choice is “which price hike plan is better.”
Many young migrants in Beijing such as Pan and Zheng rent affordable apartments at the end of the subway lines to keep the cost of living down, while having the convenience of an easy commute to the city.
Zhang Jian, who works at a stock brokerage in Beijing’s central business district, moved with his girlfriend to an apartment building next to the Liyuan subway station in Beijing’s eastern suburbs three years ago because the rent is only $209 a month.
Although his daily expenses on the subway almost tripled after the fare hike, Zhang, 27, still wouldn’t consider moving closer to work.
“If I move, the difference in rent is much more than the additional money I had to spend on subway tickets after the fare hike,” Zhang said. “Taking the bus can’t guarantee I get to work on time because of traffic congestion on the road, so I just need to face the higher subway fare and deal with it.”
Tommy Yang in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.