Expats will discover that getting around in Beijing is cheap and convenient at the best of times, and claustrophobic and dangerous at the worst. Plenty of public transport options are readily available for those averse to life as a pedestrian, and for the brave it's also possible to drive a car.
The city is built around five main 'ring roads' – highways that make basic circles around the city centre, each further out than the last. Most areas outside 5th Ring Road are considered quite far from the actual centre, though they are technically still a part of Beijing. As expected in a city of more than 21 million people, heavy traffic is commonplace throughout, but new government regulations have been working to reduce congestion.
Public transport in Beijing
Subway and bus lines are the primary modes of public transport and run throughout the city and into the outskirts of town. The standard of these systems is high, and they are constantly being improved. A prepaid, rechargeable Yikatong card can be purchased for regular travel on the subway and buses. Card holders have access to discounted fares.
The Beijing Subway is quite easy to use, with clear maps in Standard Chinese and signs in English and Pinyin (Chinese characters written out phonetically). The subway is an economical means of transport in Beijing, but the biggest difficulty tends to be crowded cars, especially during rush hour.
Expats who want to travel outside the main ring roads can commute by the rail service, known as BCR (Beijing City Rail) or Beijing Suburban Railway. This service is operated separately from the city's subway system, and while there are currently only four main lines in operation, the railway network is expanding.
Buses and trolleybuses
Passengers can travel by Beijing's bus rapid transit system, and multiple lines connect different areas and suburbs. Trolleybuses also operate in the city, particularly within the Third Ring Road.
Buses can be slightly intimidating since the routes are more complicated and less clearly marked, but signs in Pinyin as well as in Chinese characters are common. Learning the bus system will involve a bit more trial and error than learning the subway or taxi systems, but the price makes it a worthwhile adventure.
Taxis in Beijing
Taxis are readily available in most areas. There is a base fee charged for a 1.86 mile (3 km) taxi ride and additional charges are incurred for further distances. Expats should note that rates are inflated after 11pm. Taxis are a cheap way of getting around, but can prove to be more expensive when stuck in traffic.
Taxis are quite easy to use as long as passengers know where they are going or have it written down, although some drivers will occasionally try to con seemingly unsuspecting foreign passengers.
Cabs are also the only form of public transport available at any time of the day or night in Beijing, but commuters should be aware that the number of cabs on duty decreases at night. Ride-hailing apps, such as DiDi, are convenient, allow drivers to be tracked and provide details of the price of the trip in advance.
Driving in Beijing
It is recommended that expats take a bit of time to learn the traffic patterns before deciding to drive in Beijing themselves. Those who do decide to pursue a Chinese driving licence will need to navigate through a fair bit of bureaucracy and pass a relatively simple test, but one that can be confusing in translation.
Most expats do not require a car, but some choose to get one for more independence and the ease of transporting groceries and travelling with children.
Cycling in Beijing
Cycling is a common way of travelling around Beijing and is often faster than being stuck in a taxi during peak traffic. However, the city's air pollution is a deterrent to riding bikes, and initially navigating cycle lanes can be confusing.
Many expats choose to own bikes, be it a pedal bicycle, electric bike or a petrol-powered scooter. There is a great variety and many do not require a licence, but new riders will want to invest in a good lock. Locking one's bike to something immovable is crucial; bicycle theft is rampant in Beijing.
It's easy to find a bike to rent for a short trip during the day. Several companies operate services for renting e-bikes, which can be picked up and dropped off at various locations around the city.
Walking in Beijing
Many find that their definition of what is within 'walking distance' changes dramatically upon moving to Beijing. Suddenly, a few kilometres is not a long walk. Getting to places on foot – or with a combination of walking, riding buses and the subway – is not only possible, but is quite common and generally safe.
Beijing is a large city, which means it's not particularly walkable, but some areas are more pedestrian friendly than others, and new arrivals can certainly explore the city's main attractions on foot.
►Transport and Driving in China gives an overview of transport in the country
"I wouldn’t recommend owning a car yourself unless you have a driver, are experienced driving in stressful environments with unpredictable drivers, or are particularly brave! The city also has an extensive subway system with English-language signage." Read our interview with Greg for more on public transport.
"Public buses are difficult to access for most expats who are not fluent in Chinese: we don’t know at what time they pass and what are the destinations! As a consequence, most of expats move around using taxis, private cars or company cars with driver." Keep reading our interview with Alessandra Marin.
Are you an expat living in Beijing?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Beijing. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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