Driving in China is not something for those faint of heart. In 2011, for example, the country had the second highest number of reported road deaths after India, as registered by the OECD.
Urban centers in particular are places where you may want to avoid driving yourself and look for alternative forms of transport in China, instead. Traffic there is typically very heavy, fellow motorists do not always follow the rules, and air pollution is a big problem in many Chinese metropolises. To counteract this, the government has in recent years heavily invested in the expansion of local public transportation networks.
Investment is the name of the game in case of both urban and national railway transport in China. With the country’s first mainland metro system in Beijing less than 50 years old, over 20 Chinese cities now offer rapid transit networks, with a total coverage of up to 3,000 kilometers planned for by the end of 2015. The goal is to more than double this number by 2020, offering rail transit in around 50 cities.
Additionally to rapid transit systems, some cities also offer light rail transportation, i.e. trams, or even monorail train systems. Fares vary from city to city and depend on the distance traveled. In Beijing, for example, ticket prices start at 3 CNY for the first six kilometers.
City buses are a popular form of transport in China, with extensive networks and inexpensive fares. Due to this, however, they are also often very full. As part of regular road traffic, buses can also be quite slow, something to keep in mind when planning a journey. Bus stops represent a further difficulty, as information on routes and times is typically only listed in Chinese. If you do not speak Mandarin, make sure to at least have your destination with you, written down in Chinese characters. Although this could be just the opportunity to learn Chinese.
In many cities, there are two different types of buses, normal as well as express ones. The latter make fewer stops and are more expensive. Furthermore, you may encounter private bus operations. These usually follow the public bus routes, but are typically smaller, more expensive, and consequently less crowded.
With around 2–3 CNY per kilometer, cabs are a relatively cheap mode of transport in China compared to many Western countries. Expats should make sure their taxi driver switches on the meter in order to not get scammed, though. Non-Chinese speakers should also again have their destination written down in Chinese, as few drivers understand English.
If you are looking to hire a taxi for more than just a quick trip, but for e.g. half a day or a whole day, make sure to communicate where you want to go and negotiate the price beforehand. Depending on the distances of your proposed travels, you can expect to pay around 300–500 CNY a day for this mode of transport in China.
Alternatively, you can hire a car plus driver. There are numerous such services offered in many Chinese cities, by both international rental providers, such as for example Avis, as well as local companies.
Motored or pedal-powered tricycles and rickshaws are one alternative to the modes of urban transport in China mentioned so far. Prices are comparable to taxi fares. Keep in mind, however, that they offer you less space and less protection in case of an accident.
Alternatively, you might want to join in on one of the most common forms of transport in China by cycling around your city. There are many shops where you can buy bikes and equipment, so make sure to invest in a proper lock and at least a good helmet for your protection. On China’s busy roads, bicycling is, after all, not without its dangers due to heavy traffic and bad driving. You can find more safety advice for China in our guide.
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