When it comes to making transport choices, whether it is roads that are as thick as treacle, crowded subways or streets that are impossible to cross, Beijing really looks as bad as it gets, however you prefer to get around.
Beijing Airport Express
If you do decide to get around the city using just public transport and walking, then it’s still worth bearing in mind that the cheap prices that apply on the buses and subway do not apply on the airport express rail link. Depending on whereabouts in the city you are staying, and the size of your group, it might still be worth just taking a taxi for this particular trip. Remember that the airport rail link in Beijing is nothing special. It’s not a superfast maglev like Shanghai, nor is it particularly well connected with the rest of the city.
Getting out of Beijing / Car + driver
For any kind of travel beyond the city of Beijing, then a hire car or at the very least a car with driver might start to look like a reasonable idea. There is still no need for this if you just want to visit popular tourist sites. In particular, if you just want to go to the most accessible parts of the Great Wall of China, you can do this by tour bus.
Visiting the Great Wall of China from Beijing
Numerous different tour operators will provide day trips to the Great Wall of China from Beijing, typically going to either Badaling or Mutianyu.
Before confirming any booking, make sure you check the language that the tour will be offered in. You might well find agents offering seemingly very cheap trips to the wall from around US$10, but the tour will be entirely in Mandarin, and the tour guide will speak very little English.
James says - a few trip notes:
Now if you are a local Beijing resident, then you are already heavily discouraged from owning a car through heavy taxation rates on first year car registrations. Car ownership is only possible by entering into a ballot where only one in 5 applicants wins.
Beijing’s transport nightmare
So what has this got to do with whether or not to get a rental car in Beijing? Well, as a tourist, you will have to face even heavier restrictions! If you don’t have a local Chinese driving licence (see box text), then there’s no point in even going to the rental desk in the first place. You might expect that all of these very heavy restrictions on car usage would add up to creating a city where it was reasonably easy to get around by other means.
So if we were just assessing Beijing by based on public transport alone, then the city does actually look perfectly respectable. If we were just doing our assessment based on raw statistics, then the fact that is Beijing has the world’s busiest metro system. Beijing also has one of the world’s biggest networks of dedicated bus lanes, with a single journey on either system costing around just $0.25.
The stats don’t paint the whole picture!
This all looks very good, but statistics alone never paint the complete picture. Just try going out of one of the many super heated (in winter) complexes of buildings in Beijing and crossing the road at a busy intersection. Never mind the worry of drivers making right turns, they are coming at you making left turns as well. It feels like this special privilege of owning and driving a car in Beijing gives drivers an entitlement that means that the pedestrian here frankly just doesn’t matter.
The city does have a token urban bike hire programme. But with many cycle lanes acting as impromptu car parks, very few people dare to cycle. For 9 million bicycles in Beijing, read there now being about 9,000 left.
On top of the unpleasant challenge of crossing the road, Beijing is one of the most heavily polluted cities on earth!
Car or no car? It’s lose-lose either way!
So it goes without saying that any advice we could offer for getting around the city of Beijing itself isn’t going to based on hiring a car. We don’t think this transfers in any way to a suggestion that Beijing is a pleasant place to get around without one. Instead when it comes to transport alone, Beijing feels more like a 21st century transport dystopia. If you really want to feel like you are on the set of Blade-runner, there are one or two buildings that can make you feel just that!
Do you need a car in Beijing? – No, absolutely not!