Public Transport in Chinese Cities

Getting Around By Foot

Moving around Chinese cities by foot should be encouraged whenever time and distances allow. It’s not always pleasant – you have to deal with some erratic drivers when crossing roads, the footpath will often be blocked by unbearably slow-moving pedestrians and bicycles and mopeds regularly invade the sidewalk and whiz past you ringing their bells or honking their horns. But walking allows you the opportunity to take in the sights, sounds and smells of Chinese cities that you might otherwise miss. Peering down side alleys often presents some enthralling scenes of everyday life.

Many Chinese cities (at least in the center) are laid out in a grid pattern which makes them very easy to navigate. Street signs are usually in both Chinese and English and feature the Chinese characters for the four points of the compass on the relevant ends. This can be of infinite assistance when you’re not using a map or when you have just come out of a subway station and are a little disoriented. You can use these directional pointers to make sure you’re walking in the right direction. In fact, if you only learn four Chinese characters they should be the ones for north, south, east and west.

North (Bei):          北
South (Nan):        南
East (Dong):         东
West (Xi):              西

Getting Around By Taxi

As a general rule, taxis are by far the most convenient way to travel around cities in China. With very few efficient subway systems in the country and bus routes generally difficult to decipher, taxis are the best bet. Incredibly cheap by western standards, taxis in China generally start at a flag fall of a mere ¥6-¥12 (which usually covers the first three kilometers) and then increase by an average of ¥2 per kilometer. So, for example, a 7km taxi ride in Beijing will only cost around ¥20 ($2.80).

But there are also some problems with traveling by taxi. The first is communication. Taxi drivers in China do not speak English and will usually struggle with a foreign pronunciation of Chinese words. However, this problem is rather easy to address. Simply have your destination written down in Chinese and show it to the taxi driver. Make use of out “Show the taxi driver” notes beneath every place listed in our city guides, which have the name and address of the place written in Chinese. You can print these out, but printers can be hard to come by while traveling in China. So as an alternative you can copy the Chinese into a word processing application, increase the size, and take a photo on your digital camera or phone and then show that to the taxi driver. You can also ask the staff at your hotel to write your destination down in Chinese.

The other problem is that taxis can be very hard to find during peak hours and bad weather (it seems drivers don’t like working when it rains). If possible, plan to take public transport or to stay in one place during peak hour. You will not beat the locals at catching a cab during peak hour. They will have no qualms about cutting right in front of you to jump in a taxi that has stopped for you.

Taxi drivers in China are generally very honest – it’s rare that they will try to cheat you by taking a longer route and even if they do it will probably only add ¥3 or so to your fare. Drivers are required to use the meter and they will almost always do so. The exception is the drivers who lurk around train stations and tourist attractions and tout for your custom: they generally intend to negotiate a highly inflated fare with you. If you have any problems, take out a pen and start writing down the driver’s Identification Number which is displayed next to their photo on the passenger’s side dashboard. That will whip them into shape very quickly.

Getting Around By Subway

Currently Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Tianjin have useful and efficient subway systems. In these cities, the subway is one of the best ways to move around. They stop at most of the places foreigners will want to visit and are fairly easy to navigate with signs and announcements in English.

There are also subways in Nanjing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Shenzhen, Wuhan and Changchun, but at the moment they are of fairly limited use with more lines planned for the future. Meanwhile, construction has begun on subway systems in several popular tourist destinations around China including Xian, Hangzhou and Suzhou with completion dates for the first lines around late 2011 and 2012.

Getting Around By Bus

Getting around by public bus is really only worth considering as a transport option if you are on a very tight budget. Routes are very difficult to decipher, meaning it’s generally easier to communicate with taxi drivers than try to work out where the bus goes. Moreover, buses can become very crowded and uncomfortable during peak hours and they move very slowly with frequent stops. However, if you can work out the routes (or know which bus to take) then public buses aren’t a bad way to traverse Chinese cities. Buses serve every place you could possibly want to go to and are very cheap. The older style buses are usually only ¥1 per ride while newer, air-conditioned buses are generally ¥2. You just drop the money into the box by the driver as you enter the bus. No change is given so you should try to have exact change.

Getting Around By Bicycle

Getting around by bicycle is a popular option with tourists to China. Many Chinese cities are particularly bicycle friendly. But, of course, it depends where you need to reach within the city. Riding along the side of major roads is never much fun. Bikes generally cost ¥20 per day to hire (plus a deposit). It’s best to rent them from a trustworthy establishment such as your hotel or a recommended outlet. Otherwise you run the risk of dealing with some unscrupulous renters who might refuse to give you back your deposit, claiming you damaged the bike.

Other Options for Getting Around

There are plenty of bizarre little transport options floating around Chinese cities. These range from dangerous motorised tricycles with an enclosed cabin at the back for passengers, to rickshaws and beyond. A rickshaw ride along quiet streets can be fun. But most of the other options have little practical value, unless you get a kick out of the sheer absurdity of them. Prices should be negotiated in advance.