Beijing to end flat-rate subway fares this year

Beijing to end flat-rate subway fares this year
A security officer stands guard as passengers line up and wait for a security check during morning rush hour at Tiantongyuan North Station in Beijing

It costs just a flat rate of 2 yuan (40 Singapore cents) to get on Beijing's sprawling subway but a fare hike is in the works and it is getting Ms Luo Xiaoping and her colleagues hot under the collar.

"We've been discussing and fretting about this fare increase for weeks because most of us take the subway to work," Ms Luo, an accountant, 39, told The Straits Times. "The hike might double or triple our travel expenses so we're definitely against it."

Last week, the city's economic planning agency released a basic outline saying fares will be based on distance or stop numbers in the future, ending an era of flat-rate fares since 2007 that was meant to get more people to take the trains.

A public hearing will be held to discuss the price adjustment, the agency said, adding that discounts will be given to daily commuters. The elderly, students, those with disabilities and soldiers will also enjoy "preferential policies".

Earlier media reports have said that Beijing is mulling price hike proposals that could set the most expensive fare at 10 yuan. The new prices are expected to kick in by the end of this year.

This move will bring Beijing's fares closer to those in other mega cities. Coastal city Shanghai, for instance, charges up to 11 yuan as the travel distance increases.

It would also help reduce the financial burden on the Beijing public transport system that required more than 18 billion yuan of subsidies last year and hopefully reduce the crush on the trains by inducing commuters to switch to the city's underused public buses.

Not surprisingly, many people in Beijing have expressed outrage at the prospect of a fare hike - first hinted last December by a city government that is jumpy about reaction to it.

In May, searches for the innocuous phrase, "subway price increase plan", were blocked on China's Sina Weibo after details of the new fares were apparently leaked, said Mr Jason Q. Ng. Mr Ng is a New York-based author of Blocked On Weibo, a book on Chinese social media.

He added that the government is "very sensitive" to the possibility of the issue leading to unrest amid rising income inequality in the capital.

Transport analyst Chen Yanyan from Beijing University of Technology said the issue has evoked strong emotions especially among the city's middle- and lower-income workers as they are highly dependent on the subway to get around.

"These people earn a fixed income that hasn't risen much in recent years. They are also facing other financial burdens like rents and so are highly sensitive to any fare increase," she added.

The authorities, however, have defended the move, saying it is meant to help alleviate severe overcrowding in the capital's subway, of which 16 lines are strained under the weight of 3.2 billion passenger trips last year. They want commuters to switch to the city's buses instead, which are underused, experts say, although those are also in line for higher fares. But the bus network will have to be made more efficient with stops closer to one another to encourage more people to use it, they add.

Higher fares would also allow the city to divert public funds to health care, pensions and education, argued World Resources Institute analyst Xue Lulu in an opinion piece in the state-run China Daily earlier this year. This would better help the city's poor rather than giving unnecessary travel subsidies to middle-class workers, who form the bulk of the subway's peak hour riders, she added.

But for advertising executive Shu Leyun, 28, the question is whether an increase in fares can improve the subway experience.

"I can accept higher fares if they are within a reasonable range and if they result in less crowded trains. But I don't think this will happen, Beijing just has too many people," she said.

This article was first published on Oct 4, 2014.
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