on urban transport systems

Recent Guardian pieces on Beijing’s subway and Jerusalem’s light rail:

Mao declared the city needed a subway after he visited Moscow. But the system was initially intended more for civil defence than commuter transport, said Wang. In the event of air raids – like the US bombardments of North Korea and Vietnam – the trains would be used to evacuate residents to the Western Hills, on the capital’s outskirts. From there, they could be dispatched overground to safer parts of China. A sample line was even built at China’s atomic test site at Lop Nor, to check the tunnels would withstand nuclear bombs.

The engineering team was supposed to travel to Moscow to study its metro. But as bilateral relations deteriorated, the Soviet Union withdrew its experts and halted cooperation. Wang and his colleagues finished the designs of the subway without ever having ridden on one.


Over the ensuing 46 years, Israel has established numerous Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem to fulfil this aim. A network of roads has been constructed to connect them to the city centre; the light railway, once complete, will perform a similar purpose.

Its route – a single line at present – takes passengers on a political and historical, as well as physical, journey. One end starts in the south-west of the city, close to Yad Vashem, Israel’s haunting national memorial to the Holocaust, a searing reminder of the need for a Jewish homeland. Also nearby are the Mount Herzl national civil and military cemeteries, the final resting place of many of Israel’s political leaders and soldiers. The area is rich in symbols of Israeli nationalism.

The train heads north and east, passing through Kiryat Moshe, a Jewish area with a significant religious-nationalist community, over the stunning “bridge of strings”, designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and resembling a giant harp soaring towards the sky.

Soon it travels through the traditional commercial heart of Jerusalem, Jaffa Road, lined with historic stone buildings strung with electric cables and plastered with political and religious posters. British soldiers once frequented shady bars and hotels along the road during the three decades of the British mandate era, following the first world war. Later the area fell into decay. Now closed to vehicles to accommodate the rail tracks, Jaffa Road has seen a revival, with cafe tables spilling over the pedestrianised thoroughfare and global brand outlets opening next to tiny older shops selling yarmulkes, cheap suitcases and falafel.

And of course transport systems, like many other things, function as a window to understand particular forms and timespaces of urban development. The Beijing piece focuses not only on the stresses of commute but takes a genealogical detour to highlight Sino-Soviet relations, after which it moves on to the ever-pertinent issue of hukou in Chinese cities, and efforts (in name at least) to forge urban-regional relations between Beijing and Tianjin and Hebei. In Jerusalem the light rail and its network of routes are both constitutive and reflective of existing geopolitical Israeli-Palestinian relations, manifested through the realities of connectivity, access, visibility, and violence (I’m recalling Graham and Marvin’s work on splintering urbanisms here…).

Would really love to study urban transport in ways that relate to the most fundamental of geographical issues: the intersections of space and power.

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