Small things matter, including modes of connecting people and places

I’ve been using the buses, including the BRT (or bus rapid transit), more frequently this time in Guangzhou. Previously, I’ve used the subway or metro system. Whichever one we choose to use, these transportation systems connect the city and allow the majority of us who don’t have cars to move from one end of the city to another. They are heavily used every day and practically at all hours. They even connect to other cities within the province. We could actually describe these modes of transportation as the veins of the city, allowing the masses to move about, getting to work, meetings, and places of leisure and consumption. Unlike other cities where I’ve spent some time, such as Johannesburg, Singapore, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington DC, and New York City, Guangzhou’s public transportation systems are convenient, with clear guides/maps, and affordable. Such convenience within the city exists side-by-side with the national hu kou (population registration) system that limits people’s mobility across China. Indeed, this is but one contradiction among many.

Guangzhou’s underground public transportation system is extensive and well organized, not to mention very clean and well lit. The stations open around 6 o’clock in the morning and end just before midnight. As long as one could figure out where the nearest metro station is and which station to alight, a map of the different lines found at each station as well as on a phone app make traveling from point A to B relatively easy. The different exits at each station could be confusing. But, there’s always a metro officer or two and a group of volunteers to inquire directions if one doesn’t recognize any of the landmarks indicated on the signs, pointing to commuters which exit to use. For someone new in Guangzhou two  years ago, the subway was the easiest – and some would argue fastest – way to get around the city albeit it could cost more than taking a bus.

guangzhou-subway

Map available at: https://www.travelchinaguide.com/cityguides/guangdong/guangzhou/subway/metro-map.htm

At dinner last night, a Chinese friend, who visited the US last year, shared with me her experiences with the metro system in the different cities she visited. She was underwhelmed by DC’s and NYC’s metro. First, the waiting time was long, she said, pointing out that the wait for a train could be as long as ten minutes to an hour. Normally Chinese people don’t get upset about things because they accept that that’s the way things are, she added, but if they had to wait for a train for that long, it would definitely infuriate them. Especially during rush hours, each segment of the train would be tightly packed, without much room to move. Once one train is packed and has pulled

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People and goods move along these subway lines

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This is how pack it gets just before the stations closed

out the station, the people can expect another to pull in just a few minutes (definitely under ten). And, even then, passengers would push their way onto the trains, rather than wait for the next one. Second, she continued, the stations in the US are dirty. She tried to understand the NYC one, drawing the connection between its filthiness and longer history (Guangzhou’s metro system is about ten years old). But, the fact is, the Guangzhou government employs far more people to clean the city in general compared to any city in the US. Nonetheless, the returned to Guangzhou with far more appreciation for the city’s transportation system. She used to complain about its crowdedness, but now loves the fact that the city is so connected.

Now that I’m learning the bus routes around my new neighborhood in the Tianhe District, I can’t agree more with this friend. The buses run as frequently as the trains underground, but their added benefit is that they can actually take us closer to our destinations than the trains, reducing the time needed to walk. According to Travel Guide China, Guangzhou City has 450 bus lines of which 44 run from 9 o’clock at night to 6 o’clock in the morning. People who work or are out late can rely on these buses when the metro system stops just before midnight. Importantly, the buses are probably even more popular than the trains because the fair is ¥2 regardless of how near or

far one travels. The main drawback about the aboveground public transportation systems is that their routes are a lot more complicated. Thus far, I haven’t come across a phone app that allows me to map out my journey like the way I do for the subway. Directions for the different buses are available on baidu map (equivalent to Google map), but because my American phone can’t pick up 3 or 4G signal, I have no way of using this website to help me navigate across the city. The bus stops are also out in the streets, so there’s little shelter from the bad weather or anything to shield us from clouds of exhaust fumes emitted by cars. Not only do the buses become just as crowded as the trains underground, they’re also slower due to traffic. Even the brt buses, with their special lanes, get stuck in traffic.

Guangzhou’s public transportation systems – the various options that are available – have me wondering about the things that give life to a city. Of course, people are crucial. Places of consumption and leisure are just as important. But what about how people and places connect? Are modes of connection, especially for the masses who cannot afford cars, just as crucial to the livelihood or conviviality of a city? South Africa, where I’ve lived off-and-on for seven years is completely opposite of Guangzhou when it comes to access to public transportation. Specifically, Johannesburg’s public transportation is still highly segregated and reflects the way in which spaces were organized to exclude Black people during apartheid.

Before the brt was constructed around Johannesburg and first opened to the public in 2009, there were buses, trains, and taxis. Buses and taxis, alike, carried and still carry passengers, who are mostly Black South Africans, to the city center. From there, they’d board other buses and taxis that would take them to the suburbs, where most of them work. I know this only through people I came to be closed to because the taxis were inaccessible for me. I tried to use them when I moved to Soweto, but my partner quickly asked me to abandon it because it was unsafe for a non-Black person. I am aware that at the end of apartheid, taxis remained the dominant mode of public transportation. The new government was slow to change the infrastructure, and taxi drivers as well as companies were resistant to change. Turf as well as price wars were fought between taxi companies. Passengers, people who needed to go to work, were indeed at their mercy. And, when the brt first opened, taxi drivers threatened brt drivers if they dared to drive those buses into their turfs. I was there, and recall it being a tense situation.

Safety and affordability, not to mention reliability, are the aims for introducing the brt system to South Africans. Furthermore, the plan was to introduce new phases (extensions) of lanes and bridges, extending the system further across the city with each phase. I only experienced one year of this change in Joburg’s public transportation system before I left, so I’m uncertain how it is today, whether people are happier with the transportation system and the city (townships and suburbs) more connected. Its website, though, looks impressive and promising (Rea Vaya).

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