There are many different ways to get around in Beijing, most are easy to use and inexpensive. This post gives you an overview over Beijing transportation. For more specifics follow the links within.
Public Transportation: Beijing Subway and Bus
Car ownership is still in its infancy in China. I know, it’s hard to believe when you witness the choking traffic in Beijing and many other places in China. But because not many people own a car, Beijing has excellent public transportation with an extensive network of subways and buses. Read my posts on how to use subway and buses in Beijing.
There is no monthly pass or multi-day ticket. If you plan to use public transportation regularly you can buy a rechargeable IC card, the so-called Yikatong 一卡通, which you can use for both subway and buses. You can buy it at many of the bigger subway stations. Look for the blue sign that says IC Card.
Again, because not many people have cars, taxis are a very common and cheap form of transportation in Beijing. Read more on taking a Beijing taxi.
Sanlunche and Pedicabs
Sanlunche, literally “Three-wheel-car”, usually is a shiny silver colored “box” powered by a moped. Some Chinese also call it BoingBoing as the ride can be a bit bumpy. A Sanlunche is the Chinese version of a TukTuk or Moto rickshaw well known all over Southeast Asia.
The fare is similar to regular taxis and should be agreed upon upfront. They can be faster in rush hour as they squeeze through in between cars, use the sidewalk, opposite lanes, etc., which also makes them more dangerous than taxis.
Pedicabs or bicycle rickshaws are common In the downtown tourist areas and in the expat areas. They are great for short distances and through back streets but can feel a bit scary on bigger streets. You should negotiate the fare upfront and ideally have exact change ready. There have been a few reports about dishonest pedicab drivers.
In busy areas, like the bar street, all drivers seem to have agreed on a fixed fare for the vicinity, taking advantage of the fact that many women in high heels don’t want to do too much walking…
Tip: Everything Western has a Chinese name and is known to most Chinese only by the Chinese name, for example Starbucks is Xīn bā kè星巴克 , Walmart is Wò ěr mǎ 沃尔玛, … This holds true for everything that has a Western name including hotels, stores and sights. When telling a cab driver your destination or asking for directions, make sure you know the Chinese name and its proper pronunciation or show it to him written in characters. A good phone app like TrainChinese or Hanping (only available for Android) can help with that.
The easiest way, but not always the fastest and not the cheapest way, to get around is by car if your company (or financial means) provide you with a car and driver. Driving yourself with your own car is not an immediate option for newcomers. China requires foreigners residing in China to get a Chinese driver’s license, which is not that difficult. Obtaining the license plates for owning a car is the challenge but you could still rent one or maybe get one through your company. I would advise to experience traffic in Beijing for a while before considering driving here yourself.
Two-Wheelers like Bike and Scooter
In the last year, bikes seem to have taken over the sidewalks and street, thanks to the new bike sharing craze. Mobike, OFO, and other bike share companies make it easy to rent a bike anywhere in the city. (Coming soon: Post on bike sharing)
In addition to the old-fashioned human-propelled version, people use electric bikes, small scooters that look like a small moped but are usually battery-run, and more regular-size scooters that can be electrical or gas powered. Real motorcycles are not common.
From what I understand, you don’t need a license for a scooter, making them a favorite choice among foreigners. Wearing a helmet is not required and you won’t see many people taking that safety precaution.
Many neighborhoods have bike lanes, but those must be shared with motorized small vehicles including Sanlunches, pedestrians venturing into the street and the occasional parked car, so watch out.
Last but not least, the most common form of “transportation”: your own feet. Be prepared to walk a lot, especially if you rely on public transportation. Distances are often huge, even changing subway lines at some intersections requires several minutes of walking.
While many Chinese women manage to do that in high heels, I found my nice heels gathering dust in the closet. Comfortable shoes are a must in Beijing. Also keep in mind that the city often is very dusty and in some areas not very clean, so not really a place for Manolos (in case you have any).