As Beijing’s population balloons, workers face hours-long commutes

19th CPC National Congress

Millions have moved from rural areas to urban centers in China. While providing many benefits, this migration has also created a bottleneck in cities like Beijing, where housing is expensive and traffic can be horrendous.

CGTN’s Wei Lynn Tang followed one commuter on her daily journey to and from work.

At a time when most are still asleep, Zhang Sixian is getting ready to start her long day ahead.

She starts before six in the morning, and is set to leave for work at 6:20. Most of the time she skips breakfast, and usually drinks just a glass of water.

Once out the door, her journey begins at a nearby bus station where a line has already formed.

An hour is spent on the public bus before she gets on a subway train. After 30 minutes underground, which includes a change of lines, she finally gets off at the station just a few minutes’ walk from her workplace.

In total it’s a two-hour journey just so she can arrive before nine.

“I personally feel it can be a waste of time, but I do not have much of a negative view towards taking the public transport at the moment,” Zhang said. “It’s actually quite convenient. Perhaps during winter when it’s cold and it gets dark early, it may be a bit more challenging. But I feel I can still take this on for now.”

She’s looking forward to a new subway stop that will serve her community by the end of the year, which will cut out the portion of her daily trip spent on the bus.

An average of 10 million trips are reportedly taken on the Beijing subway every day.

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In the future, the young woman plans to live closer to work, but is in no hurry at the moment.

“Firstly, it’s because of housing prices. Secondly, it’s because I am not married yet so I am currently living with my parents, and my parents live in Fang Shan. I’d rather the inconvenience be on me, to go about traveling, than rather place the burden on them.”

So for now, Zhang spends her mornings catching up on sleep, and uses the journey back to relax by listening to music. Reading a book, she says, is almost out of the question. The subway is too noisy and crowded to get lost in a novel.

Over 21 million people currently live in Beijing, and the central government wants to permanently cap the city’s population at 23 million by 2020.

“There are also way too many people, and it can get very tight in the subway. Sometimes I can’t even get on it on the first try. As for the bus, we have to queue for 20 minutes before we can get on it. The entire 2 hour journey can be tiring. If the traffic is bad in the morning, I may even be late for work sometimes.”

Zhang’s ordeal is far from unique in China’s congested capital. Hundreds of thousands of professional workers spend hours on their daily commutes, and they must  all weigh the pros of better opportunities in the city, against the cons of high housing prices and bad traffic.