A Rarity in Canada / by Simmon Li

Today, I was out just enjoying some of the more mundane (by tourism standards anyway) sights in Beijing, the highlight of which was the local IKEA. For those that are curious, it’s basically the same stuff as you’ll find in Canada, right down to the food. However, their kitchen does have a curry beef with rice that was quite delicious (though to be frank, the beef in China really blows compared to Canadian beef). Anyway, that’s not important, and I’m sure you’d rather not hear about my trip to the local Chinese IKEA for novelty’s sake. As a complete aside, the transit in Beijing is really busy. And I don’t mean in a “rush hour” kind of way—it’s always busy. I’m surprised I haven’t written about it (maybe it’s in my online blog, and I just didn’t bother to blog about it here), but the transit experience here is certainly something to write about. First and foremost, it is packed. I always thought the TTC during rush hour was pretty insane, but that was before I had to take the Beijing Subway during rush hour. On the TTC, at the very least, you have some personal space; however reduced it may be from your office or everyday norm. On the Beijing subway, during the majority of hours (from 9am till about 7pm I’d say), you have no personal space. People lean on you, people push their way in and out of the cars, and you better hope that there is no child near you, lest you crush them. It’s really quite a harrowing experience. For those that are claustrophobic, I do not recommend the Beijing subway. I can see why the subway system is so packed though, at 2RMB for access to the whole system, it is the cheapest way to get around the city if you have time (but let’s face it, even if you don’t have time; with Beijing’s traffic, the subway may just be your best bet anyway). Having also been on the Shanghai Metro, which actually has more track mileage than Beijing’s, I can compare the two in a somewhat fair comparison. Shanghai’s subway runs on a distance fare though, which I think helps to lessen the volume of people that take the subway. Part of it could also be that Beijing is more densely populated compared to Shanghai (my own experience supports this). In short, Beijing’s traffic is terrible. I can’t imagine what it would be like if the subway had to shut down one day. Anyway, the reason I touched on the subway situation is that I took the bus back from IKEA today. I was thinking that it’d be much better than the subway but it wasn’t. I was really surprised at this, actually. I figure that people would opt for the subway because they wouldn’t then have to deal with the traffic (which was absolutely terrible, like always). But man, was that bus full. Thank god I have some idea of where I needed to go, otherwise I might not have been able to get off at my stop in time.

In experiencing the Beijing transit system, I often ask myself why the Toronto system is in such shambles. Clearly, ridership and volume drive revenues. At 2RMB a fare, I’m not sure how much the Beijing subway system loses or makes, but I’d wager to say that they make enough to break even. On this point, Beijing’s sheer population helps to make that happen. Even at 2RMB a fare, if enough people take it, they’re likely to turn a profit. I think it also helps that the ticketing system seems fairly solid to me. It’s a good incentive to make sure you collect fare from everyone, having it cheap and flat. The issue is, it’s not possible to do this with the TTC simply because it lacks the ridership to sustain a low-cost, high-volume approach. I think TTC’s flat fare is a good idea, but the more I take the subway in Beijing, the more I come to realize that the Presto card is something that will be good for the system. In fact, I think that the TTC should phase out the monthly metropass in favour of a smart card with a balance. I know it’s nice to get a fare discount by buying the metropass, but the reality is that the discount hurts the TTC. I think, if everyone paid a fare of 2.75$, they’d make more money than charging some 3$, and others 2.50$. Obviously, I know nothing of how public transit works, so I am talking out of my ass, but it’s clear to me that the TTC isn’t keeping up with best practice around the world in terms of running a public transit system. Europe, China, even some American cities have better transit systems than we do, and most of it comes down to accessibility and integration. The Presto project will be a boon for commuters. Having the ability to manage GO and TTC with one fare pass will be attractive to a lot of people (myself included). Again, I’m just not sure the Metropass is a good solution anymore. Do I like that I can get unlimited access for 99$ a month? Hell yea, you bet I do. As a student, I do appreciate the discounted rate, but to be frank, I’d rather pay full fares and have the system expand and remain healthy than pay a cheaper fare and allow the system to deteriorate. While I don’t have numbers to back this up, it feels to me that this is exactly what is happening to the TTC. Slowly, because the management isn’t focused on the sustainability and extensibility of the system, future transit riders are getting short changed. And as a result, I think Toronto gets shortchanged. While public transit isn’t the holy grail when it comes to growth (the drivers of which could be up for debate), a solid system that is accessible certainly encourages and enables a lot of people to contribute positively. In the end, a strong and healthy (ie, not running operating shortfalls and having to rely on operating subsidies or grants) transit system only contributes to the livability, productivity, and growth of the city in which it resides.

Well, that was a long aside. To pick up where I left off, I was talking about visiting the mundane local IKEA and coming back on the bus. I’m living with my aunt who has a place near an international school. Naturally, there are a lot of tenants with kids in her apartment building (it’s actually a really good location within Beijing). And I’m sure this has been happening for a long time (and upon reflection, it has), but it really only hit me today. The realization is reflected in the title of this post: kids were playing outside. You know, I remember doing this kind of thing when I was very young, but even my aunt recalls, “You starting playing computer games when you were 5.” That really hit home for me. I’ve been a computer potato for, gosh, 18 years. Now to be fair, I’ve recently tried to kick my computer habit down a notch. Started running, try to read books more often than I sit on the computer, and do school or other work. But today, I was walking into the building and say 10-15 kids playing a small game of soccer. They weren’t in uniforms and there weren’t any parents yelling or screaming, just a few watching the kids to make sure they didn’t hurt themselves. This kind of stuff doesn’t happen in Canada anymore; at least, not where I live. I often go running in Robinson Park, and half the time it’s empty. The other half of the time, there’s a few moms with their babies just sitting on the benches talking. Sometimes there are toddlers using the play set, and I’ve even seen a friendly tennis match, but that was once out of the countless times I’ve been there. Once, I saw two baseball teams playing a game, but I think it was part of some local league, as they had uniforms and serious looking adults with them. Often times, it’s just me, running in circles and some backyard dogs barking at me. We invest in public space only to have it sit idle. Downtown, it’s actually a bit of a different story, which to me is baffling. Why is it that, in the suburbs, local park space isn’t as utilized (by my experience anyway) as park space downtown? Wouldn’t conventional wisdom hold that downtown park space is much more dangerous? Anyway, if anyone has any insights, please comment.

For now, I’m content to know that not every kid is chained to a computer monitor.