Both Beijing and London have multimodal transport cards where travellers can touch in and out. Beijing has the Yikatong (一卡通), while, of course, London has the ubiquitous Oyster card. That said, London is streets ahead if you happen to have left your travel card in your other chinos, with breezy alternatives such as contactless and Apple Pay.
Without a Yikatong in Beijing, you're either standing in a line 100-deep to buy a ticket from the kiosk, or trying to buy one from a machine. A machine that has no card payment option, only takes a minimum CNY 10 note for a CNY 3 fare (and therefore runs out of change pretty darn fast) or uses coins, in a city with less metallic currency usage than London. Meaning that you're either adding half an hour to your journey through queuing, or weighing yourself down with useless coinage ‘just in case’. No contest, London wins
Beijing has the world's second largest subway system, with 18 lines, 319 stations and at the time of writing, 527km of track. Ridership in 2014 was 3.14bn, and the network is likely to continue its rise with current plans to almost double the length of the existing network to 1,050km by 2020.
The tube doesn't even come close in terms of scale, being as it is currently the 11th largest subway system on the planet. Its 11 lines, 270 stations, 402km of railtrack and annual ridership of 1.265bn in 2014 are way behind its Chinese counterpart, and the gap is only going to widen, even taking Crossrail into account.
With such an almighty trouncing on the cards, what does London possibly have up its sleeve? Try convenience. Even with Beijing's network size, stations are positioned very far apart — usually a kilometre or more. The grid-type layout of the Beijing Subway also makes getting from A to B very difficult if it's not a simple N-S or E-W transit. Try to imagine the tube without the Piccadilly, Bakerloo and Victoria lines giving you easy access to cut across town in a diagonal fashion and you get the idea of the current Beijing Subway setup. Size does matter. But not always. Draw
The new London Underground trains on the Circle, Hammersmith and City and Metropolitan lines are admittedly smart. They even have — wait for it — air conditioning. It's also nice to be able to get a brief wi-fi signal when at major stations to refresh your Twitter feed or ping out another Whatsapp. Now imagine if that sort of luxury was the norm — full air conditioning, stacks of standing room and an actual 3G connection, even in tunnels. Beijing has this and more — the carriages are disinfected daily (this is written on a panel to let you know) and it has plastic seats on all lines that you can actually consider sitting down. Unlike the Bakerloo line. We think we still have the bites from last time... Beijing wins
Information and navigation
At Londonist that we love an alternative Tube map, but we must admit that the official TfL tube map is one of the cleanest and clearest subway network maps we’ve ever seen; the fact there are only 15 lines represented, that it's monolingual, and remains an artistic marvel after over 150 years in business.
The Beijing Subway map (see above) is very helpfully bilingual and uses the same types of bold colours and clear lines the tube map does to make it easy to read — or as easy to read as it could be given the huge amount of information it conveys.
So with the maps it’s pretty even, but getting back above ground in the right place is where you see the major differences.
Imagine you’re new to London, or better yet, have decided to choose to ride the Central line. You get off at a station you’ve never been to before (say, Oxford Circus…) and you want to go to Selfridges. Which exit do you take? You know Selfridges is sort of out on to Oxford Street and turn left, but which of the eight exits will point you in the right direction? If you ask us, this is one of the main reasons tube stations get so darn busy — re-emerging into the sunlight can be a confusing experience.
Beijing does have the advantage of having been centrally planned and organised into a grid, unlike the organic ebb and flow of modern London. With the subway lines pretty much following the roads above ground, stations are positioned at crossroads with exits to the NW-NE-SE-SW, all labelled A-B-C-D. So when you’re coming out of Dongsishitiao station to head to the Sanlitun bar street that’s to the east, you take exits B or C depending on what side of the road you need to be on. This neat trick works pretty much everywhere; even when there’s no Exit C, Exit D will still be there on the southwest corner. Beijing wins
Most of the Beijing Subway isn’t even old enough to own a Facebook account, but with literally billions upon billions of whatever currency you wish to count in washing around Chinese public infrastructure projects, you’d expect they'd have drawn on their rich cultural heritage to create some striking buildings and fascinating designs. You’d be wrong — most stations are the kind of drab, non-descript structures people build for functionality over form, while the closest it gets to ‘artistic’ are a few murals along Line 1 and Line 2 (which are, incidentally, the only lines on the Beijing Subway around while Mao Zedong was in a typically ‘cultural’ mood.)
Simply put, London is in a different league when it comes to subway beauty. We particularly love the modern airiness of Westminster and Canary Wharf stations, while Baker Street brings a touch of Sherlock Holmes-style class that shows you don’t need oodles of glass and sleek steel to be beautiful. There’s no competition in this beauty contest. London wins
London 2, Beijing 2. Both subways have their own pros and cons and are equally loved and despised for different reasons. A bit like the Opening Ceremonies at their respective Olympics then. Disagree? Fuel the fire in the comments below.
By Gareth Richards