Commuters bear teething pains as China megacity takes root

July 20, 2015 10:13
People help pack commuters in Yanjiao into a chock-full Beijing-bound bus through its windows. Photo: Weibo

Each morning at 5:30, Liu Desheng joins a dozen retirees waiting for the express bus to central Beijing from Yanjiao, a small city in Hebei province, The New York Times reported.

They stand at the front of the line but never board.

Instead, they wait as bus after bus pulls up, each picking up 50 people from the ever-lengthening line behind the retirees.

At around 6:30, their adult children arrive.

There is now an hour-long wait for those at the back of the line.

As people cut in, shoving matches break out.

But the retirees have saved their children this ordeal.

When the next bus pulls up, the young adults take their parents’ places at the head of the line and board first, settling into coveted seats for a 40-kilometer ride that can take up to three hours.

“There’s not much I can contribute to the family any more,” the report quoted Liu, 62, as saying as his son waved goodbye from a bus window.

“He is exhausted every day, so if I can help him get a bit more rest, I’ll do it.”

The commuters are experiencing the transportation woes accompanying Yanjiao's absorption into a new supercity of 130 million people centered on Beijing.

The planned megalopolis, a metropolitan area that would be about six times the size of New York, is meant to revamp northern China’s economy.

“The supercity is the vanguard of economic reform,” the newspaper quoted Liu Gang, a professor at Nankai University in Tianjin who advises local governments on regional development, as saying.

“It reflects the senior leadership’s views on the need for integration, innovation and environmental protection.”

The new urban colossus will combine the research facilities and creative culture of Beijing with the economic muscle of the port city of Tianjin and the hinterland of Hebei.

This month, the Beijing city government announced its part of the plan.

It pledged to move much of its bureaucracy, as well as factories and hospitals, to the hinterland in an effort to offset the city’s strict residency limits, ease congestion and spread jobs that pay well into less-developed areas.

The central government hopes to transform Jing-Jin-Ji, as the region is called (“Jing” for Beijing, “Jin” for Tianjin and “Ji”, the traditional name for Hebei), into a prosperous economic belt in northern China like the Yangtze River Delta, around Shanghai and Nanjing, in the east and the Pearl River Delta, around Guangzhou and Shenzhen, in the south.

But the new supercity is different in scope and conception.

It will be spread over 212,000 square kilometers and hold a population larger than a third of the United States.

Unlike metro areas that have grown up organically, Jing-Jin-Ji is a deliberate creation that will rely on a huge expansion of high-speed rail to bring the major cities within an hour’s commute of one another. 

But some of the new roads and railways are years from completion.

For many people, the creation of the supercity so far has meant ever-longer commutes on gridlocked highways to the capital.

People are flocking to suburbs like Yanjiao, the population of which which has grown tenfold, to as many as 700,000 inhabitants, in a decade. 

Many believe that the transportation woes will sort themselves out, given enough time and money. 

Although the air is much cleaner than in Beijing, the city has no bus terminal, no cinemas and only two very small parks.

More worrying for many Yanjiao residents is the dearth of hospitals and schools.

“The services are bad,” the report quoted Zheng Linyun, who works in a sales company in Beijing and commutes about five hours a day, as saying.

His six-year-old son just started primary school and has more than 65 children in his class.

“All we see are more and more people coming here,” Zheng said.

But several factors are making Jing-Jin-Ji a reality. The most immediate is President Xi Jinping, who laid out an ambitious plan for economic reform in 2013 and has endorsed the region’s integration.

Improving the infrastructure, especially high-speed rail, will be critical.

Zhang Gui, a professor at the Hebei University of Technology, was quoted as saying Chinese planners used to follow a rule of thumb they learned from the West: all parts of an urban area should be within 100 km of each other, the average amount of highway that can be covered in an hour of driving.

Beyond that, people cannot effectively commute.

High-speed rail, Zhang said, has extended the limit.

Chinese trains now easily exceed 240 km/h, allowing the urban area to expand.

A new line between Beijing and Tianjin cut travel times from three hours to 37 minutes. That train has become so crowded that a second track is being laid.

Now, high-speed rail is moving toward smaller cities. 

Wang Jun, a historian of Beijing’s development, was quoted as saying that creating the new supercity would require an overhaul of how local governments operate, including instituting property taxes and allowing local governments to keep them.

Only then can these towns afford to establish local infrastructure and services and become more than feeders to the capital.

“This is a huge project and is more complicated than roads and rail,” Wang said.

“But if it can succeed, it will change the face of northern China.”

– Contact us at [email protected]