Public transport here is very popular – the majority of commuters don’t drive into work, but instead use the subway, which has ten lines and runs all over town, with a journey of any distance costing just ¥2, or 20p. It’s pretty crowded at peak times but fast and efficient. A prepaid contactless travel card called Yikatong is also available for frequent users, with a ¥20 deposit.
Carrying a subway station map also makes useful pointers for taxi drivers, when you’ve not got the language skills to be any more specific. Taxis are everywhere and cost a minimum of ¥10 (£1/$1.50) for a journey of less than 3km, although past that it rises very slowly. The yellow official taxis all have meters and so far I’ve not had any problems with overcharging. It’s also possible to buy a set of flash cards for tourists to show to taxi drivers, with all the popular destinations written in Chinese, but these don’t help much if you want to get off the beaten track. Best solution so far is to get a mapping application on our phone that has both English/Pinyin and Chinese street names, then just point at that – even if they don’t know the exact street they may recognise the surrounding area.
Driving yourself is simply too dangerous here unless you’re born into it. Despite rigorous driving tests most drivers don’t seem to have any sense of where and when to turn, change lanes or come to an abrupt halt, instead relying on other drivers horns to alert them to danger. Parking is readily available everywhere and generally cheap or free. Another consideration is that the city is growing so quickly that most maps are out of date by the time they’re printed – the most accurate is also the cheapest, that available from the Beijing Tourist Offices dotted around town. Hiring a car for a day is around ¥1000 – employing taxi driver to chauffer you round all day can be down for ¥400.
An alternative to taxis is pedicabs, essentially a metal box welded onto the back of a motorbike, but for me they just look too fragile in the chaotic Beijing traffic.
It’s probably safer to hire a bicycle and use the dedicated cycle lanes that run all over the city. These are separated from the motorised traffic and perfectly safe apart from the occasional rogue pedestrian. A reasonable bike can be bought as little as £10, but it’s worth going to £20 to get one with brakes…
Buses run all over town but I’ve not yet got the reading skills to decipher the starting point, let alone the destination, ticketing system or to figure out when to jump off. There is a website with a route finder for the adventurous: http://www.bjbus.com/home/index.php. The Yikatong card also works on buses and gives a healthy discount.
UPDATE: Google Maps can now also show bus routes – search for driving directions between two places and click the little bus icon to see the available options
May favourite way to get round a new city is always walking. Beijing is very spread out so this isn’t a practical solution here, but it’s at least worth getting off the subway a couple of stops early and walking the extra distance. Just note that no drivers will ever give way to a pedestrian.