Notes from a pilot's kid

Paying Bus Fare in Chengdu

Chengdu has two open subway lines with more on the way, but most people using public transit still rely on the bus system. Though the system works pretty well, buses at peak hours can be completely packed. Several times in the last two weeks I’ve been one of the last passengers to board a bus that’s so full that I’m leaning up against the dashboard and front windshield, looking back at everyone else:

A full bus in Chengdu

But busriders in Chengdu are used to this and have been dealing with packed public transportation for years.

In many cities, a packed bus is a slow bus, because it takes a long time for people to make room for passengers to alight and takes a while for passengers to pay while boarding. But this would mean public transportation hell in Chengdu, and riders have developed an unofficial form of social cooperation to make sure even busy buses do not get stuck at bus stops waiting for crowds of people to slowly board.

How it works: though there’s only one place to pay in the front of the bus (unlike many buses in other cities in China), passengers are encouraged to board wherever they can, even from the rear door, so the driver can depart as quickly as possible, minimizing bus stop waiting time. After boarding, it’s often physically impossible for those who boarded from the rear door to make their way to the front to tap their bus card or drop 2RMB into the fare box. But all riders know this, so the common practice is to hand the money or bus card to a fellow rider positioned closer to the front of the bus. This rider then passes along the money and card(s) from other passenger(s) forward to other riders, passing through a half-dozen hands until it eventually reaches the front. Then, whoever is handed the money and cards towards the front is unofficially responsible for placing the cash in the fare box, tapping each card on the machine, and then passing all the cards back again to be collected by their owners in the back. It’s not a perfect system, especially for people who like to load up their bus card with a few hundred RMB and may sometimes worry whether they’ll get it back, but it seems to work and everyone riding the bus knows how to cooperate.

Modern Chinese society often seems like it’s full of selfishness (though maybe it just seems this way to a foreigner). For example, when waiting in line for security in Chengdu’s subway, there’s always a handful of people that try to discretely jump to the front of the line. Or in a crowded restaurant, customers don’t extend any courtesy to those waiting outside for an open seat, and will linger after their dinner for as long as they please. But perhaps because it serves everyone’s interests to keep public transportation efficient, this unofficial system involves a bit of social cooperation and leaves an impression when experienced firsthand.