Expats will find getting around in Beijing to be cheap and convenient at the best of times and claustrophobic and dangerous at worst.
Many expats find that their definition of what is within "walking distance" changes dramatically upon moving to the city. Suddenly, a few kilometres is not a long walk. Getting places on foot – or with a combination of walking, riding buses, and the subway – is not only possible but is quite common and is generally safe.
Regardless, plenty of public transport options are readily available for those averse to life as a pedestrian, and for the very brave, it's also possible to drive a car.
The city is built around five "ring roads" – highways which make basic circles around the city centre, each farther out than the last. Currently, most things outside of Fifth Ring are considered quite far from the actual centre, though they are technically still a part of Beijing. As expected in a city of more than 20 million people, heavy traffic is commonplace throughout, but new governmental regulations have been working to curb congestion.
Public transport in Beijing
Subway and bus lines are the primary modes of public transport and run throughout the city and into the outskirts of town. The standard of these systems is high, and they are constantly being improved.
The subways are quite easy to use, with clear maps (in Chinese) and signs in English and Pinyin (Chinese characters written out phonetically). The biggest difficulty for expats on the subway tends to be the crowded cars, especially during rush hour. Most get used to this, however, or at least learn to avoid it most of the time.
Buses can be slightly intimidating since the routes are more complicated and less clearly marked; but signs in Pinyin as well as in Chinese characters are becoming more common.
Expats with a metro card won't even need to worry about talking to anybody. Passengers simply swipe their card and watch for their stop. Learning the bus system will involve a bit more trial and error than learning the subway or taxi systems, but the price makes it a worthwhile adventure.
Buses in Beijing operate on standard fares,depending on the distance travelled, but discounted rates are available with a metro card, available at most subway stations and some bus stations.
Taxis in Beijing
A taxi in BeijingTaxis are also readily available in most areas. There is a base fee charged for a three kilometre taxi ride and additional charges are incurred for additional distances. Expats should note that rates are inflated after 11pm.
Taxis are quite easy to use as long as passengers know where they are going or have it written down, although some drivers will occasionally get lost and or try to pull something over seemingly unsuspecting foreign passengers.
Cabs are also the only form of public transportation available at any time of the day or night in Beijing, but commuters should be aware that the number of cabs on duty decreases at night, unless the passenger happens to be in close proximity to a well-known late night hotspot.
Peddle cabs in Beijing
At various places, expats will also find peddle cabs (which are basically boxes on wheels, sometimes petrol-powered and sometimes simply human-powered) or rickshaws (seats behind a bike). Passengers should be absolutely sure to negotiate their price before riding in these, especially if they happen to be at a tourist venue. In non-tourist areas, these can be as much as half the price of a short-distance cab.
Driving in Beijing
Some may describe driving in China as a carnal blood-sport rather than a method of moving around. To put it more lightly, however, there is a rhythm to the driving in Beijing, and those who venture to get behind a wheel of any sort will need to learn the rhythm.
It is recommended that expats take a bit of time to learn the traffic patterns before deciding to drive for themselves. Those who do decide to pursue a Chinese driving licence, will need to navigate through a fair bit of bureaucracy and pass a test that is relatively simple, but that can be quite odd in translation.
Most expats do not require a car, but some choose to get one for more independence and the ease of transporting groceries and children. New regulations make getting a licence plate difficult because there is a lottery system for all prospective car owners.
Many expats choose to own bikes, be it a pedal bicycle, electric bike, or a petrol-powered scooter. There is a great variety and many do not require a licence, but new riders will definitely want to invest in a good lock. Locking one's bike to something immovable is crucial; bicycle theft is rampant, and nice bikes are often thrown right into a truck to have the lock dealt with later.
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