Poorly thought out adventures in commuting

In the grip of my darkest and most bourgeois moments I actually considered buying a car and hiring a driver. So, it’s come to this… I thought, as I hovered over a digital map of Beijing. I have to get one of those Buick vans. No matter how I traced the route or arranged the useless layers of meta-data in Google Maps I had to face up to reality. My new office was in the sticks.

More specifically, it was in Wangjing. North Wangjing, hard against the Fifth Ring Road. The Fifth is commonly accepted as the dividing line between the frothy, urban Beijing of Apple Stores and upscale dining and the great void of the Chinese hinterland where all is windswept grist for broody New York Times articles about how miserable the rest of the world has it. Well, and also Tongzhou. Never mind that when I moved to Beijing the Fourth Ring Road was that line.

You can tell the office is in a neighborhood that didn’t exist three years ago. The building is as gorgeous and new as a space station and just as isolated from amenities and comforts. The nearest Starbucks is at least two kilometers away. In Beijing in 2010 more than two kilometers from Starbucks is the qualification for a rural hukou. I brought a French press to office.

I am strong enough to confront my flaws (although weak enough wrap that confrontation in a layer of prickly humor). By the standards of my Chinese colleagues this is, I admit, jello-kneed schoolgirl bitching. Many of them live outside the Fifth and have commutes that sound lifted from the darker pages of Jack London novels, where people die freezing for want of a twist of jerky somewhere on the track from Fort Yukon to Unalakleet. Just substitute a bendy-bus for the dog sled. Against this, even the commute from Dawang Rd. to Wangjing is lower middle-distance at best, like one of those mid-range Olympic track races that is too long to be exciting but too short to be impressive and that nobody remembers who won.

I, however, have been spoiled. For six years my distance from the office has ranged from a five minute walk to a five-stop straight shot on subway line 1. Even the latter is the Beijing commute equivalent of schlepping from the couch to the fridge during a commercial break for a half-full can of Duncan-Hines frosting and a Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Although I toyed seriously with the idea of either buying a car or hiring a car and driver, in the end my socialist* pedigree won out. For my first day at the new job I decided to take public transport.

Man, was that stupid.

It looked good on the map, though. From my house I can take the line 1 subway one stop to Guomao. Then it’s a straight shot north on line 10 to the Shaoyaoju interchange and one more stop on line 13 to Wangjing West. From there a short bus ride. Simple!

If you read the New York Times you probably scan the occasional Tom Friedman column where he hyperventilates about how fast the Chinese are building infrastructure for which Americans have lost the blueprints. Subways, for instance. The statistics for Beijing are magnificent: Thirty lines planned, totaling over 1000 kilometers of track. Everyone living within the Fourth Ring to be able to walk to a station in fifteen minutes. Sounds like The Future!

Sure. It’s Logan’s Run. But with the subway system from The Warriors.

There are two reasons for this. First, adding more lines and interchanges has certainly made the entire system more useful. But the number of people riding has gone up as something like a cubic function of the number of track kilometers. In the course of two years my old line 1 commute went from crowded but tolerable to needing to lubricate yourself with Astroglide and use a prybar to get on or off the train. Combined with the casual Chinese disdain for off first, on second it’s a miracle the platforms aren’t entirely covered with bits of scalp and shards of broken teeth.

Second, the planners of the Beijing subway system haven’t really figured out the whole idea of the subway interchange. In Singapore, subway interchanges are designed such that trains that make the most natural connections pull up on opposite sides of the same platform. Walk thirty air-conditioned feet, get on the next train. Now that’s the future!

But why build an actual subway interchange when you can just build a long, sweaty tunnel between stations in adjacent neighborhoods? Changing trains in Beijing is a little bit like changing airport terminals, right down to the surprising number of people dragging luggage. Add the rush hour crowds and idiotic security screening chokepoints and it’s almost (though not quite) as bad as checking in at JFK.

It took me an hour to get from my house to Wangjing West station. When I finally staggered off the third train I was ready to bail on the bus and head for a taxi. Except that Wangjing West apparently serves as the informal transportation hub for the entire Wangjing new town, which means that at any given moment there are zero authorized taxis and about fifty black cabs. I don’t generally like taking black cabs, although I do it from time to time, so I reverted to the bus.

Big mistake. Should have taken the black cab. Beijing subway platform minders are good at cramming an apparently limitless number of people onto a train, but they have nothing on the bus drivers. Beijing’s bus drivers have taken that skill and extended it into a rarefied art form of otherworldly magnificence. The driver of the bus I took used a combination of eye-watering verbal abuse, physical bullying and backyard-steel-furnace socialist will power to get people stacked three deep in the bus. Mine was the Very. Last. Stop.

Except that I accidentally got off a stop early and had to walk the last kilometer. There isn’t much in Wangjing and they space out the bus stops like railroad towns. An hour and twenty minutes after leaving the house I got to the office, late and looking like I had been caught in a kitchen fire at a Bob’s Big Boy. I felt virtuous, but exhausted and dumber than a chicken on roofies. Some of my colleagues do this daily. In both directions. This, not the threat of cyberwar, is why America should be scared of China.

So I’ve been taking the taxi. I did the math. Sure, it adds up, but it’s still way cheaper than a regular car and driver, let alone buying my own car. About 25% of the taxi cost is offset by my having to brew my own coffee (which says something about the magnitude of my coffee habit). And it gave me the gossamer thin rationalization I needed to justify my iPad (thus instantly cancelling out something like two year’s worth of coffee savings). A quiet half-hour each way alone with my electronic newspapers. Well, quiet except for the ubiquitous radio story teller who makes wet lightning-and-thunder noises with his mouth.

I’ve come to terms with the cost. I’ve come to terms with my increased contribution to global warming. The only thing that really worries me is the feeling that a taxi-based commute in Beijing is actuarial equivalent of moving to Detroit and developing a habit for convenience store robbery. After all, few Beijing taxis have seatbelts and most are driven by people with the patience and deliberation of a fox terrier that has been whipped with car antennas. If you hear of a pileup on the fourth ring and a white man being whisked to hospital to have an iPad removed from his abdominal cavity that’ll be me. If you hear of a taxi driver being whisked to hospital with an iPad embedded in his skull and an angry white man being questioned by police, that will also be me.

*by American standards.

You can't get there from here.

You can’t get there from here.

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