Hood in WSJ on Beijing’s Subway – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
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Hood in WSJ on Beijing’s Subway

Professor of History Clifton Hood was quoted in a Wall Street Journal article about the new subway network in Beijing. According to the article, the subway project was inspired by the city’s hosting of the Olympics and has improved the flow of traffic in Beijing, spurred new businesses and crossed socioeconomic boundaries.

“The subway was designed to put New York City in the urban big leagues and to feel that way,” the article quotes Hood. “You get that sense in Asia, too.”

Joining the faculty in 1992, Hood holds a bachelor’s degree from Washington College, and his master’s and doctorate from Columbia University.

He is the author of “722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York,” which was released in a new paperback edition in 2004; and is currently writing, “Striving for Distinction: Economic Elites and the Making of New York City, since 1754.”

The full article from the Wall Street Journal follows.


The Wall Street Journal
Beijing, Digging Out of a Jam, Expands Subway
Project Comes Despite Inauspicious Feng Shui

Ian Johnson • January 6, 2009

For years, sprawling Beijing seemed destined to be another Los Angeles, with endless traffic jams and long commutes. But suddenly, Beijing flows. Credit an ambitious subway network that’s finally starting to draw commuters off the street.

Spurred by the Olympics, the project symbolizes Beijing’s goal of entering the big leagues — and is dramatically changing the urban fabric of a city that for centuries followed ancient geomantic principles by avoiding breaking the earth’s surface.

The new subway network boasts eight lines with 123 stops stretching about 120 miles. It is due to expand over the next seven years to 348 miles of mostly underground track, 50% longer than New York City’s network. The system has already spurred new businesses and changed habits: Once, only the poor rode public transportation in Beijing. But now, the subway is crowded every morning with urban professionals.

“I like it because you can count on it,” says Rayman Yu, managing director of Starflight International Media Co., a talent agency. “It’s clean and safe and modern.”

The subway is part of Beijing’s transformation to a more urbane metropolis. “The subway was designed to put New York City in the urban big leagues and to feel that way,” says Clifton Hood, a professor of history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York. “You get that sense in Asia, too.”

The new system has radically changed Beijing and its aversion to subsurface building. Until recently, there were no catacombs, crypts or even basements in Beijing. Part of the reason was due to principles of feng shui, or geomancy, which held that digging underground was inauspicious. Beijing’s once-high water tables also discouraged much below-surface activity.

This changed in recent years as modern building techniques allowed for tunneling without worries of water leakage. In addition, traditional beliefs became less influential with time: Feng shui is still widely practiced in China, but rarely at the expense of economic progress, and few public projects are blocked by its ancient rules.

“The city’s surface was never breached; it was always a surface city,” says sociologist Yang Chongguang, at the City Development and Environmental Research Center. “Suddenly, this city is digging.”

In Western countries, subways sprang from mostly private enterprises, although most were later nationalized, while in Beijing — and in most of Asia — they have been state projects. That helps explain the money poured into the project. Over the past year, various levels of government in China have spent 54 billion yuan ($8 billion) on Beijing’s network and plan to spend an additional 120 billion yuan by 2015.

It’s not like Beijing never had a subway. Like many socialist cities, Beijing built a network. But the project, which began in 1965, was slow and controversial. Two lines were built: an east-west line and a circular line. The latter required the destruction of the city’s massive walls, a loss of heritage that drew protest. Then, the lines didn’t function properly. After years of political upheaval, the first line of 17 miles began regular service in 1981. Then came another two decades of stagnation.

Meanwhile, commuting was becoming important. In the socialist era, Chinese lived in government-provided apartments inside their “work units.” That system began to break down in the 1990s as the job market and housing were privatized. People began to live in one part of town and work in another. But the lack of public transportation meant many were forced to take cabs or bike. Commutes could last hours.

The breakthrough happened in 2001, when Beijing won the right to host last year’s Olympics. Officials launched a crash expansion to have eight lines running by last summer. Then, during the Games, many residents were forced to change their habits when draconian traffic restrictions were implemented. According to city officials, half of Beijing residents commuted on public transportation during the Games.

Businesses, such as the Subway Newspaper, have been launched in tandem with the new system. Bi Kun, the paper’s 56-year-old publisher, took one of his newspaper group’s money-losing papers and turned it into a free newspaper aimed at subway riders. Modeled on similar newspapers in Europe, the paper is designed to be read in 30 minutes, the average commute.

Outside the new stops, rental companies have begun to offer bikes to make the final leg of the commute. One has a chain of 22 rental agencies at key stops. For 100 yuan a year, people can get a bike when they leave the stop and either return it at another subway stop or keep it for the day.

“It’s made a huge difference in my life,” says Yang Baozhong, general manager of a tour bus operation. “But it’s strange because I never see anything above ground anymore because I’m underground.”

-Gao Sen contributed to this article.

Write to Ian Johnson at ian.johnson@wsj.com