Public Transit in Nanjing

By Bryan • china, environment, nanjing, urban planning • 3 Jun 2008

After several weeks of lecturing regarding the financial and time benefits of utilizing the Nanjing transit system, I managed to convince a friend to step on one of the buses….and the verdict is…”Ah, it wasn’t that bad!”

Exactly. It never will cease to amaze me how few foreigners take advantage of this system and rely completely upon taxi transport. Taxis, obviously hold a useful position in the transportation heiracrchy especially at during evening hours and given the lack of a direct bus route between my workplace and home, I use two taxis each day for commuting purposes. Granted, 9RMB/3km with a tariff of 2.4RMB each additional kilometer ($1.3+$.35) is not a huge investment) but if one makes multiple trips a day, especially over long distances, this minor expense can easily turn into several hundred or even into a thousand RMB/month. On an expat salary, this is still very small, but many taxi-fiends I know live largely upon a standard English teacher bankbook. My knowledge of the transit network in Nanjing is mainly a product of necessity as I was subjected to living within these financial constraints my first several years in this city. I still retain this habit and swear religiously by my metro and select bus routes. The metro is amazing with a travel time from Gulou to Xinjiekou a cool 3.5 minutes (If I recall my timing) but unfortunately, the single line remains useful only to those within walking proximity (like me).

I’ve also believe that public transit users hold a more intimate portrait and spatial understanding of the city. I’ve noticed a special relation between a person’s knowledge of a particular city (in this case, Nanjing) and the amount of reliance placed on public transportation. Individuals who rely primarily upon taxis for their movement generally are more aware of discrete units, places, or stops within a city but lack a greater understanding of the meat and guts in between these locations. There is a lot of material in Nanjing easily missed if whizzing by in a taxi instead of attentively searching for your bus stop.

One of my past-times way back during my first days in Nanjing was to hop on a random bus that went past my apartment and ride it to the end of the line to see where I ended up. It wasn’t a complete blind jump as all bus routes are recorded on the standard Nanjing map sold at all of the newspaper kiosks but I credit my mental map of the city and my current ability to navigate with ease and confidence to this silly practice I did.

Once you learn some of the major Nanjing bus routes it becomes amazingly clear how interlocked and expansive this network really is. Buse routes consistently over-lap and double on oneanother within greater Nanjing. Routes will often converge upon major commercial centers such as Xinjiekou, Zhujiang Road, Gulou, Hunan Road, Fuzi Miao etc. This, of course, diminishes as one enters the suburban areas, but coverage is still OK and I’ve found that 90% of the time I can find a stop nearby where I am to take me where I’m going.

The excuses for not using public transit in China are fairly common.

Yes, the buses are crowded, but this can be easily overcome if you are aware of the beginning and terminal stations of the major lines, if you avoid the rush-hours (7-9am, 5-7pm) and make short walking trips if it is raining (good luck find a cab if it is raining!). The best strategy is just to be patient and pass up the packed buses for emptier ones which are sure to follow. Traffic in Nanjing is bad, and bus flow will often back-up causing several buses from the same route to hit the same station at the same time one of which will almost always be empty.

They are too slow. This is debatable. During daily working hours and rush-hours the streets of Nanjing are packed with vehicles and I have heard that the most efficient way to move is via bicycle, followed by bus, then taxi, then private car. I would argue that after 9pm and before 7am, taxis will offer the quickest transportation means, as the streets are still empty before 7am and the vehicle numbers really drop after 9pm. If I’m meeting anyone at 1912 around 9 or 10pm, for example, I’ll most likely take the 31 bus there from Hunan Road and arrive in about 10-15 minutes, maybe less if I’m lucky and don’t have to wait.

I can’t read the schedule. Yes, I admit…this is a serious hurdle to the aspiring public transit passenger. But getting those bus characters down isn’t that difficult. I started with with just following the number on the map to see if it passed through the area I wanted to go. Then I graduated to learning the several characters to the major areas of Nanjing (Xinjiekou, Hunan Lu etc.) and searching for them on the bus stop sinage. Once you have mastered the important stops you will be blown away at how incredibly dense the bus system. Like I said before, I am confident that I can go to almost any bus stop and find a bus that will take me to Xinjiekou or within walking distance of my apartment.

They are cheap. Not that that is a bad thing. Traveling an entire line from start to terminal station will set one back 1RMB (non-air conditioned) or 2RMB (air-conditioned)…slightly cheaper if you invested in an IC card.

My taxi fees amount to about 360RMB/month for work-related travel with probably another 100RMB for other taxi trips. If I made use of taxi services for each time I used the bus on my days off during each month, my expenses would probably be at least 1000RMB. I sink 50RMB/month into my public transit pass.

But that is just me. Maybe I’m slightly jealous that upon returning to Canada I’m going to essentially be forced into purchasing some sort of vehicle therefore I want to make use of this cheap transportation as much as possible. I’m a cheap guy and I like saving cash for not very well thought out travels. I believe public transit use is a way to fight aggrivating traffic, pollution and make cities better places to live…and I feel I need to support that. I like staring out the window and memorizing my city.

Or maybe I’m just a bus geek.

That’s probably it.

Public transportation geeks never get any love.

Some Nanjing Public Transit links:

Check the routes (in Mandarin)
Nanjing Metro (in Mandarin)

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