When Gordon recently posted a short item about plans to use facial recognition to speed Chinese subway users through ticket gates, I was actually riding those subways in Chengdu and Beijing.
What the story didn’t say is that the delays at the subways aren’t at the turnstiles, but at the adjacent “Security Check” where every passenger has his or her bags, purses, or backpacks x-rayed, and undergoes a wand scan for prohibited items. Millions of these checks are a part of daily life in China at subways, museums, offices, and public places.
Along with the ubiquitous video cameras, ID checks, and security personnel we found that they just became part of the routine after a couple of days.
Tiananmen Square is a good example of Chinese life. After passing through Security at the perimeter, you’re immediately being watched by hundreds of video cameras on every lamp post and building.
While it made me feel somewhat uncomfortable, our Chinese hosts actually described them as a positive thing, saying “There are lots of cameras, and they use face recognition to spot problems. That’s why it’s so safe in Beijing; there’s almost no crime.”
Reference was then made of Tibetan monks who had set themselves on fire in the square, and how that didn’t happen any longer.
Surveillance and the police state excepted, the Chinese subway systems are in most ways superior to the Skytrain. This was demonstrated when I returned home and found a Chengdu mother and child at the YVR Skytrain station struggling to figure out how to get to Surrey and how much it would cost. Once I helped her get her tickets she rode with me to the Waterfront station, out one set of turnstiles, up an elevator and around a newspaper kiosk, into another set of turnstiles, then was pointed to the Expo line. After a fifteen hour flight that was far more complex than any traveller should have to deal with.
Also, a trip for two from YVR to Waterfront that would have cost the woman and her son maybe 8 RMB in Chengdu ($1.50 today) was $17.20! (91.50 RMB!) I’m sure she felt very welcome on her first visit to Vancouver!
The Chengdu subway system is expanding rapidly (as is Beijing’s) to more than two dozen lines, but it’s easier to use than Vancouver’s three subway lines. The ticket machines all feature a big “English” button, after which it’s incredibly simple. The touchscreen displays where you are in the system. All that you do is select the line that you need to reach, and tap the station that you want to go to, and the machine tells you exactly what it will cost.
No more trying to figure out from a static printed map whether you’re going two zones or three, and whether you’re in or out of peak times, then translating that into choosing a fare. It’s easy.
(Of course the locals never go near a ticket machine, and just tap through with their phones. In a country where most people use WeChat dozens of times each day to make purchases and order services it’s the only natural way to pay.)
Everywhere you turn you’ll find a complete map of the line that you’re travelling showing which station you’re at, which direction the train is travelling, and the name of the next station. It would be hard to be unsure where you’re going. That map in repeated in every car, over every door, with lights that turn on as you travel along the route.
Again it’s utterly easy with none of that “Oh no, did we miss a stop?” feeling. Newer cars also have a video screen at each door that repeats where you are and what the next stop will be. In Mandarin and English.
The other fantastic thing that I can’t understand hasn’t been included in Skytrain design are the head-high plexiglass screens along the edge of each platform. As well as protecting riders from falling over the edge onto the tracks, the panels offer yet again detailed information about where you are, right down to the car and door number.
Given the very slow pace of Chinese automobile traffic, and the difficulty in buying and licencing a car, it’s well worth learning that the “D” sign means “Subway” and that it’s easy to travel using transit. That’s especially true if you’re using a guidebook like the Lonely Planet series that includes the subway stop with most listings.
Featured image: Wenyanglu station platform, by N509FZ, CC BY-SA 4.0