Shanghai, in Motion
One is a blind masseur, who navigates Shanghai relying on touch, sound, and trust in a journey that transcends physical limitations. Another travels over 40 kilometers each way from her home in the neighboring city of Kunshan. And a third is a first-grader, who sees the metro as his own personal Disneyland.
These are just a few of the countless stories that unfold within the expansive network of the Shanghai Metro. But their distinct lives intersect at the heart of one of China’s biggest cities, united by a lifeline that has shaped their lives and millions more.
This month, the Shanghai Metro turns 30. It wasn’t China’s first — that honor goes to Beijing, which opened two decades earlier. But in China’s financial capital, the metro’s rapid expansion, innovative design, and accessibility have helped transform the urban landscape.
Launched in 1993 with a single line, the Shanghai Metro has grown exponentially over the past three decades. Today, it boasts an extensive network of 19 lines, with 508 stations, serving more than 10 million passengers daily.
With an extensive network spanning over 800 kilometers of track — making it the world’s biggest metro system by route length — it has effectively expanded the boundaries of Shanghai, connecting distant neighborhoods and creating new vibrant hubs.
The metro’s influence is evident in the rapid development of commercial and residential complexes around the subway stations, which are now bustling secondary city centers.
From the innovative engineering that underpins its construction and the dedicated maintenance workers who ensure its smooth operation to the voices behind the announcements who play a crucial role in guiding passengers, Sixth Tone peels back the layers to discover the metro afresh.
A tactile connection
Wang Chunchun, 29, and his girlfriend Guo Guo, 28, are both blind. But along with millions of commuters in Shanghai, they too start each day with an early ride on the metro to work at an office park two stations away.
It’s the 15-minute walk from their suburban home to the Lianhang Road station on Line 8 that they dread: The roads are ill-marked and often crowded with rental bikes. And with the lack of voice alerts at traffic lights, rush hour is even worse.
On this day, though Wang’s job as a masseur won’t start until noon, he insists on accompanying Guo Guo to her office, where she works as a voice analyst for AI assistants. “I worry about her safety given the bad road conditions,” Wang told Sixth Tone.
They relax only on reaching the metro station. “Compared with walking on the street, we feel safer and more relieved after entering the metro station. There, everything is standardized and traceable,” he said, adding that the better tactile paving in stations and along the platform edges is a crucial accessibility feature, particularly for the visually impaired.
Traceability, explains Wang, is crucial for the visually impaired to find their way. Though he tripped over the edge of a road several times on the way to the station, he says he prefers to walk along the edge instead of the middle because it’s traceable.
More skilled in navigating than Guo Guo, Wang led the way, gliding his long, white cane as an extension of his arm along raised yellow blocks that form a trail through the metro station. Guo Guo follows closely behind, gripping the edge of his shirt.
Seeing them coming, metro staff lead them through an entrance with free access instead of the regular ticket gates. Wang says metro staff often lead the visually impaired to carriages and ask colleagues at the destination to help the passengers alight.
Already familiar with the route of their daily commute, Wang finds his way to platforms by himself now. “But we will still need support when traveling to bigger metro stations like People’s Square which has more than a dozen entrances,” he says.
As the government prioritizes employment for the disabled, access to public transport plays a key role in helping them live an independent life. In Shanghai, the municipal government approved a new law in January to create a barrier-free environment for residents, of which the metro is a fundamental aspect.
“Lots of blind people working in this office park commute by metro,” says Wang, as he hears the tap-tap-tap of another walking cane. “That must be a co-worker at my girlfriend’s office.”
Born in central China’s Henan province, Wang lost his vision while in primary school. He received training as a masseur at a government-backed vocational school for the disabled in his hometown. Before moving to Shanghai last year, he worked in Suzhou where he met Guo Guo in 2020.
“It’s normal for people to be afraid of the world when they can’t see. I was also stuck in my comfort zone once, relying only on relatives and friends to go outside,” he recalls.
But he forced himself to adapt. “I had to get used to the unknown because I knew I would have to live independently sooner or later. I’m still young and don’t want to be trapped in a confined space.”
Life in transit
Standing amidst a sea of commuters swaying to the rhythm of the moving train, Wang Pei sighs in relief just past the Jiading Xincheng station on Line 11. She’s on her way back home to the neighboring city of Kunshan and knows the crowds will now start thinning out.
Though most seats are still all taken, Wang finds a sliver of space to unfold her carry-on stool, something she rarely leaves the house without. “I’m usually so tired after a day’s work,” she says.
She’s among thousands of “extreme” commuters in Shanghai — relying primarily on the metro, such commuters spend at least one hour traveling each way from home to work and back.
Wang joined this cohort after buying an apartment eight years ago in Kunshan, in Jiangsu province. Every day, the 38-year-old, originally from the eastern Anhui province, commutes roughly 90 minutes each way to her office located in Shanghai’s downtown Huangpu District, more than 40 kilometers from her home.
Despite the long hours of traveling, Wang believes she is among the fortunate few able to buy their own apartment before the surge in housing prices over the past few years.
Unable to afford the expensive apartments in downtown Shanghai, Wang says she chose Kunshan because of its proximity to Shanghai, cheaper housing costs, and favorable living environment.
Back in 2015, Wang’s apartment cost less than 10,000 yuan (then about $1,592) per square meter. The price has nearly doubled now. “The metro is the major reason for me to purchase a home here,” she told Sixth Tone on her commute back home.
As China’s first cross-province metro line, Line 11 has significantly contributed to Kunshan’s appeal among homebuyers from Shanghai. By connecting Kunshan with the financial hub, Line 11 — one of the world’s longest with a track length of 82 kilometers — has helped transform the region.
In addition to Kunshan, the line stretches further northwest, where it connects to the Suzhou Metro as part of China’s push to build city clusters around the Yangtze River Delta region that encompasses Shanghai and parts of Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces.
Even though Wang owns a car now, she still prefers public transport, primarily due to its reliability. “I drove to work when I worked at a company closer to my house. But the commute became uncontrollable, particularly in bad weather and other unforeseen situations,” she says.
Wang has tried to find another job nearby, but downtown Shanghai simply has more opportunities. “To be honest, I’ve just gotten used to the commute now,” she says.
When traveling, she either spends her time browsing on her smartphone or takes a nap since she gets up at 6:30 a.m. to catch the early train.
On workdays, Wang gets back home at around 7 p.m., which she says is still relatively early given her long commute. She cooks herself dinner and prepares a lunch box for the following day if time permits.
She’s more comfortable about her life now but says she longs for a relationship, provided she has enough personal time. With most of her day occupied with her daily routine, she has little time or energy to make new friends.
“There’s nothing I can do for the time being,” she rues.
For eight-year-old Hu Shu, Shanghai’s metro network is his own private Disneyland.
“I love to watch the doors open and close while people get on and off the train,” he says. In his fantasy world, strangers standing right next to the door are goalkeepers, while those besides the grab poles are secondary goalkeepers.
But it wasn’t always like this. Hu began riding the metro when he was only five months old, nestled comfortably in his stroller.
“He wasn’t a big fan of the metro as a baby because of the loud noises,” says Hu’s mother, Daisy Ding. “He’s still not fond of the sounds, but over time he’s gradually become obsessed with the metro. I think the change is natural given his love for train toys,” she says.
While the destination matters most to commuters, Hu just finds the ride fascinating. “Just like playing with my train toys at home, I always wonder where these twisting and turning tracks will lead me to,” he says.
Compared with quiet riders, the first-grader is hard to miss on the train: He loudly warns of upcoming stations and yells out names of stops as they get closer.
It’s an adventure the whole family, who live in suburban Shanghai, near Pujiangzhen station on Line 8, must embark on. With help from his father, Hu once drew up a travel plan to “check in” at all the metro lines within one day.
“We started from Line 8 and went to Line 4 at South Xizang Road Station. Then, (we) changed at Line 2 at Zhongshan Park to take Line 17 at Hongqiao Railway Station. It was my first time on Line 17, which leads to Qingpu District,” he says, while diligently reciting his adventure to Sixth Tone.
Every time he travels with friends, he’s the designated travel guide, introducing transit and stations and planning out the route to their destination.
Although his favorite line always changes, Hu is now partial to Line 14: It connects some of Shanghai’s most famous spots, including the Oriental Pearl Tower, the financial hub of Lujiazui, and Yuyuan Garden, the deepest metro station in the city.
“I also like the line because it is automated and doesn’t have a driver,” he says.
Hu’s mother supports her son’s fondness for public transportation. “We usually take him out for metro trips on weekends. It’s a good way for him to learn more Chinese characters,” she says.
(Header image: Passengers wait for the metro in Shanghai, May 2023. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)