China Daily Global Edition (USA)
COMMUTERS FORCED TO GO THE DISTANCE
High real estate prices trigger long journeys
Many people living outside Beijing and commuting long distances to work in the capital dream of ending these monotonous journeys.
Beijing residents typically spend more than an hour making a single trip to work in a metropolitan area of 16,410 square kilometers, much larger than New York City.
Some people, especially members of the younger generation who cannot afford apartments in the downtown area, choose to live in much cheaper cities in neighboring Hebei province.
The majority of this group, which numbers more than 300,000, are determined to pursue a better life.
Li Xiaobai, 31, an engineer living in Langfang, Hebei, said, “When I got married five years ago, I did lots of research on all the residential communities that I could possibly afford in Beijing.
“Both my wife and I work near the East Third Ring Road. The average price of apartments near our workplaces was about 90,000 yuan ($13,824) per square meter. We could not even afford the down payment. Prices are even higher now,” Li said.
“We checked real estate projects that are further away, including some on the Fifth Ring Road and the Sixth. However, the support facilities are unsatisfactory, as there is a lack of kindergartens, schools and hospitals.”
At the time, the couple had been renting for several years and had become tired of landlords raising rents annually. They set their sights on new real estate projects outside Beijing.
“We wanted a place of our own so much, especially as we were planning to have a baby,” Li said.
The couple and their 3-year-old daughter now live in a residential community in Guangyang district, Langfang, about 50 km southeast of the center of Beijing.
Every morning on a work day, they rise at around 5 am, before heading to work by car an hour later. They spend 40 minutes on expressways and another 25 minutes traveling within Beijing to their offices.
There is no subway line between Beijing and Langfang. Some bus journeys between Beijing Railway Station and Guangyang take more than two hours, so driving is the best option for commuters to get to work. Some 80 percent of the residents in the area work in Beijing.
Li said at least nine real estate projects in the area are targeting people who work in Beijing, rather than local residents in Langfang.
“The area we live in is not close to downtown Langfang city. Locals usually don’t choose to live here. Those who buy property in the area choose to do so because it’s easy to lead a dual-city life,” he said.
“We have to get up early to reach Beijing before 7am, avoiding the morning rush hour. Otherwise, we would have no idea when we would arrive at our offices.”
However, asked whether they would move back to Beijing in future, Li said: “Of course. We sleep outside Beijing, but our dreams are there.
“My career, my connections and my future will always be in Beijing. I told my wife I will work harder to make more money for our family, especially our lovely daughter, to give us a home in Beijing in the near future. That’s my promise.”
The couple are relatively fortunate, as their workplaces are quite near an expressway.
Li’s neighbors, who work in a northern area of Beijing, spend about two and a half hours on the road to get to work, and three hours during rush hours — one hour on the expressway and another two traveling within Beijing.
Wang Ying, a 28-year-old saleswoman in the financial sector, said: “I sit in my car for more than five hours, driving between home and work and back again in the evening. Sometimes, it’s six hours if I get off work late and get caught in a traffic jam.
“At first, I killed time listening to music, but I have gradually realized that I am either at work, or on my way to work, a lot of the time. I have little time to relax after I arrive home at around 9 pm. I’m exhausted.”
Wang, who owns a 130-square-meter apartment that cost about 1.8 million yuan in Langfang, said she is considering renting in Beijing again.
“The money I paid for my apartment could only ‘buy’ a living room in Beijing. For the past two years, I’ve enjoyed this large apartment, which is situated in a beautiful community that is full of trees and flowers, but the exhausting longdistance commuting has affected both my mental and physical health,” Wang said.
“I’ve tried to lead a two-city but have failed.”
Wang, who is currently making a round-trip of 160 km each work day, plans to sell her apartment and buy a smaller one within 30 km of her workplace.
The last straw for her came in January, when clusters of COVID-19 infections were found in some villages in Hebei.
Even though the villages are far from where Wang lives, the local government announced that commuters traveling between Beijing and neighboring cities in Hebei had to produce several documents and negative nucleic acid test results to enter the capital via expressway.
This led to long lines of traffic waiting life, to pass through checkpoints.
On Jan 8, Wang arrived at an expressway checkpoint at 8 am and waited for three hours in a long line of vehicles. She burst into tears and called her boss from her car while she was waiting. She eventually arrived at work, tired and hungry, at 1 pm.
“I felt as though Beijing was rejecting me that day. I was emotional at the time, but I’m pretty rational now, and know I have to move back. Otherwise, I am always going to be an outsider.”
Beijing has four major functions as China’s capital, serving as the nation’s political, cultural, international communications, and scientific and technology center. It has 16 districts, with Dongcheng and Xicheng as the core area.
The core area and neighboring districts such as Chaoyang and Haidian play major and essential roles for the city.
The capital’s key resources, including schools, hospitals, major infrastructure and transportation services, lie within the Fifth Ring Road, along with most workplaces. These factors have led to high real estate prices in downtown Beijing.
According to the Hurun Research 2021 list of self-made billionaires under age 40, which has just been released, four of the top six are from China.
Zhang Yiming, the 38-year-old founder of ByteDance Technology, the parent company of short-video platform Douyin, which is known as TikTok outside China, ranked second on the list. His company was founded and is headquartered in Beijing.
Encouraged by such success and attracted by job opportunities, millions of people are willing to endure long-distance commuting to work in Beijing, including those living in the city but far from the center.
Books editor Zhang Xiaoxiao, who is in her 30s and lives in Tongzhou district in eastern Beijing and works in Chaoyang, spends a total of four hours commuting a day. She has become used to the journey and plans to continue making it for the foreseeable future.
“At least there is a subway line linking the downtown area and Tongzhou. I can read books or watch videos during the time I spend on the subway,” she said.
According to a report released in December, more than 10 million people in 36 major Chinese cities spend more than one hour on single-trip commuting, accounting for 13 percent of the commuters in these cities. The report was published by the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design.
In Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, Guangdong province, up to 18 percent of commuters spend more than one hour making a single trip. In Beijing, the proportion is as high as 26 percent.
The report said the average commuting distance in these four cities is 9.3 km, with Beijing ranking top with 11.1 km.
The average commuting time in the capital is 47 minutes — the only city in China where commuters spend an average of more than 45 minutes getting to or from work.
The report said many cities in the world, including Shanghai and Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province, aim for 90 percent of their commuters to spend less than 45 minutes traveling, which is considered a benchmark for a prosperous, fair and sustainable city.
However, in the 36 key cities in China, only 76 percent of commuters spend less than 45 minutes traveling.
“Long-distance commuting has become a major factor limiting a city’s high-quality development and reducing residents’ happiness,” the report said.
“Affected by job opportunities, high real estate prices, family considerations and education, it’s difficult for residents to choose living and work locations that are a short distance (from each other). Deepening home-work separation is a reflection of the unbalanced supply of residences and jobs.”
We sleep outside Beijing, but our dreams are there. … I told my wife I will work harder to make more money for our family, especially our lovely daughter, to give us a home in Beijing in the near future. That’s my promise.”
Ni Pengfei, director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Global Urban Competitiveness Research Center, said urbanization is an irreversible trend in China, and the core problems of urbanization are people’s homes and jobs.
Ran Jiangyu, senior engineer at the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design, said some industrial cluster zones in big cities have led to a separation of home and work, as more people tend to live in high-quality residential communities, which are not typically situated in industrial areas.
Beijing, the city with the toughest commuting problem in China, has taken steps to address this situation in a number of respects.
In 2017, the capital published its general city plan for 2016 to 2035, with the authorities making clear that they aimed to move “non-capital functions” out of Beijing and solve “big city diseases”.
In 2019, the Beijing municipal government moved its administrative offices to Tongzhou, bringing a large number of jobs and businesses to the area in an attempt to ease the population density in the capital’s downtown area.
The Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei integrated development strategy aims to bring quality industrial, educational and medical resources from Beijing to surrounding areas — providing a better residential and working environment for people looking for new opportunities outside the capital.
Fang Xiaoyu, 32, a supermarket cashier in Langfang, used to be a saleswoman at a clothing store in Beijing’s Daxing district. She spent 90 minutes traveling from home to work.
When her son started attending a primary school in Langfang last year, she decided to quit her job in Beijing to spend more time with him.
“I chose to find a new job near our home. It seems as though I have left Beijing, but I haven’t,” she said.
Fang now often takes her family to shopping malls, parks and museums in Beijing during weekends, and no longer spends a lot of her time driving to and from work. She is happy with her changed circumstances.
“No matter where you live, you have to embrace a real life,” she said.
Li Xiaobai, engineer