China Series Part 1: Beijing’s terrible tourist tram

Since Chinese New Year is approaching, this week will feature a series of posts on the biggest fish in the economic pond. Click through for Part 2, and Part 3

I recently went back to a town I used to live in. Beijing.

They say: “You can’t step in the same river twice,”

Nowhere could this statement be more relevant. Since I arrived on a snowy afternoon in 2003, until late 2013, Beijing has experienced average annual economic growth of 10.4 per cent and changed presidents twice.


To return to Beijing is to find yourself in a very easy game of spot the difference.

When I emerged from the subway on my way into town from the airport, I was sure I could navigate to the hotel.  But before long my companion saw my confident stride slow, my mouth hang open, my head swivel side to side as I searched for familiar landmarks.

Beijing Dazhalan Hutong
McDonalds DaZhaLan

Right in the middle of Beijing, in a place I knew inside out, a brand new six-lane road had been built, right through what had once been an area of narrow alleyways and traditional courtyards. And on the corner of that horrible traffic funnel and one of the famous silk-selling streets was now a McDonalds.

I was upset. I raved on and on about it until my companion put earplugs in.

It was only a couple of days later when I discovered why this disruptive and massive road – Meishi Jie – had been built. And I was suddenly willing to forgive it entirely.

There is another road  two minutes away called Qianmen Street. It lies on the crucial north-south axis of Beijing. If you followed it north, you’d drive right through Mao ZeDong’s resting place, the monument to the people’s heros, the gate of heavenly peace, the centre of the Forbidden City, etc etc.

Despite its feng shui importance, when I lived in China in 2003/04 it was a traffic-choked abyss of unpleasantness. I avoided walking down it when I could.

But now! Now it was a pedestrianised mall. And not only pedestrianised. I could have just about died of delight when I saw, rolling along among the tourists and touts, a tram.

Beijing Qianmen tram
ding ding!

China’s reputation for traffic problems and air pollution problems is well-deserved. As the traffic status of the old Qianmen Street was a bellwether for the state of China across the following decade, so this new, improved Qianmen Street might be a sign of a smarter, more urbanist future. So I thought.

My eagerness to ride the tram was at boiling point. [nb. I am not now, and never will be, cool.] So imagine my shock, nay abject disgust, when I learned that the thing travels just 840 metres and costs 20 yuan.

At today’s exchange rate that’s $A3.77, or $US3.31.  That is not just more than a Melbourne tram ticket ($3.58), it’s ten times the price of the Beijing subway fare (2 yuan).

Even the outrageous San Francisco Cable Car ($5 a ride) is only about 50 per cent more expensive than taking a ride on BART.

In the time I saw the tram rolling up and down, it had at most two passengers. Of course it won’t go broke – it has the might of the PRC behind it.

But the tram is pure symbolism, which has an insidious effect. It undermines people’s views about the true usefulness of that kind of transport. (Incidentally, this is why Canberra should not build a tram. It will run very visibly empty up and down the middle of the city and reinforce perceptions Canberra can’t do PT.)

Thank god China has an undying love affair with trains, or their troubles would be about to multiply very fast indeed.

train stations beijing

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

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