Beijing, Digging Out of a Jam, Expands Subway Despite Inauspicious Feng Shui

IAN JOHNSON – The Wall Street Journal

Copyright The Wall Street Journal
JANUARY 6, 2009
BEIJING — For years, this sprawling city of 17 million seemed destined to be the next 1970s Los Angeles, with traffic jams and endless commutes. But suddenly, Beijing flows.
For years, sprawling Beijing seemed destined to be another Los Angeles, with endless traffic jams and long commutes. But suddenly, Beijing flows. Credit an ambitious subway network that’s finally starting to draw commuters off the street.
Credit an ambitious subway network that is finally starting to draw commuters off the street. Spurred by the Olympics, the project symbolizes Beijing’s goal of entering the big leagues — and is dramatically changing the urban fabric of a city that for centuries followed ancient geomantic principles by avoiding breaking the earth’s surface.
The new subway network boasts eight lines with 123 stops stretching about 120 miles. It is due to expand over the next seven years to 348 miles of mostly underground track, 50% longer than New York City’s network. The system has already spurred new businesses and changed habits: Once, only the poor rode public transportation in Beijing. But now, the subway is crowded every morning with urban professionals.
“I like it because you can count on it,” says Rayman Yu, managing director of Starflight International Media Co., a talent agency. “It’s clean and safe and modern.”
The subway is part of Beijing’s transformation to a more urbane metropolis. “The subway was designed to put New York City in the urban big leagues and to feel that way,” says Clifton Hood, a professor of history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York. “You get that sense in Asia, too.”
The new system has radically changed Beijing and its aversion to subsurface building. Until recently, there were no catacombs, crypts or even basements in Beijing. Part of the reason was due to principles of feng shui, or geomancy, which held that digging underground was inauspicious. Beijing’s once-high water tables also discouraged much below-surface activity.
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