Two weeks before the start of the Olympics, Beijing has debuted what will be one of the Games most significant legacies, bigger than all the impressive architecture and the beautification campaigns: three new subways that expand the city's track length by twenty five percent.
As US urban and commuter rail is just barely chugging along, the new lines are stand-outs: fast, gorgeous and frequent, arriving every two and a half minutes at rush hour -- things that cannot easily be said about most American subways. The ticket price hasn't gone up either: it's still 2 RMB or about 30 cents (the new airport line costs about $3.50 per ride).
Just how important these new lines are to this crowded, sprawling city, often plagued by smog and snarling traffic, was made clear today, when a crush of passengers caused a rare shut-down on an older line. But the skies were all blue and white.
The extra passengers and the beautiful weather were a result of a new regulation this week that took half of the city's drivers off the road. Beijing's temporary odd-even car restriction policy, part of the world's largest anti-pollution experiment, which will keep cars off the roads on alternate days depending on the last digit of their license plate.
Still, even at an Olympic-time capacity of 1.1 million commuters daily, it already seems that the new subways -- the elbowed northwest to southeast line 10, a short Olympic spur line for venues and a 20-minute-long airport line -- will be hard pressed to meet the extra demand caused by the car restriction. And the Olympics will add considerably more pressure to the subway network. Beijing's network now includes eight lines with a total length of track of 200 kilometers (124 mi), up from 142 km (88 miles).
To encourage car owners to hop on the subway, traffic authorities have also placed big parking lots near four major subway stations, which can hold more than six million vehicles.
Of course, given the price of gas these days, commuters most places in the world don't need to be convinced to use public transit. In China, despite a recent increase in gas prices, the government opts for subsidized gas, which it says is crucial to sustaining growth. It's argued that that growth is in part necessary to build the public transit infrastructure that its cities need. And, officials worry that raises in gas prices would lead to social unrest. The government already has enough social unrest on its hands-- a good deal of it stemming from a distaste for polluted air and water.
But there's no doubt: without good public transit, any attempts to get people out of their cars will go nowhere. And a good public transit network is simply essential for the environmental, economic and social wellbeing of good cities. Beijing expects to have more than 561 km of track by 2015, making it the world's largest subway network.
By spending $3.26 billion on the three new lines, and much more for a planned six new lines in the coming few years, the government will be helping to improve the city for the long term in ways that its Olympic smog clean-up efforts may not.
When it made its bid for the Olympics in 2000, Beijing made a few tough promises, including clean air, media freedoms, and good transportation. The first two haven't been as easy to fulfill as the last. Though the air has been clean in recent days, the anti-pollution measures are only temporary. Meanwhile, reporters are worrying what they they will be prevented from showing the rest of the world during the Games.
One thing Beijing officials will show off are the new subways, and they ought to be proud of them.
See a Beijing subway map here (lines 4, 9, and the extension to line 5 are not yet complete.)