Harbin and Vladivostok

I was in Harbin and Vladivostok last week. These two cities may be in different countries, but they are only 500 km apart and have a common late-19th-century origin as Russian railroad towns. Harbin was the administrative center of the Trans-Manchurian branch of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and Vladivostok is of course the Trans-Siberian’s terminus. Both cities also have a history as centers of migration from their big neighboring country. Harbin was a largely Russian city in the years after the railroad was completed (1898) and also the destination of numerous refugees from Russia, who were fleeing (in succession) pogroms, the Soviets, and the Nazis, and Vladivostok for a period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the scene of an enormous Chinatown: numerous Chinese migrated there to earn a living. Harbin’s Russian population largely moved away after the Communist takeover, and Vladivostok lost most of its East Asian population as a result of Stalin’s ethnic cleansing during and after World War II, but both cities have again become surprisingly cosmopolitan places as a result of tourism and Russian-Chinese trade. Architectural vestiges of the Russian years have been turned into tourist attractions in Harbin, while Vladivostok—the closest European-looking big city to East Asia—draws thousands of Chinese tour groups, as well as other East Asian travelers. The two cities have one more thing in common: They became major industrial centers in the 20th century as a result in part of their excellent transportation facilities. But the industry in both cases was heavy industry, and both cities have experienced a considerable amount of deindustrialization in recent years.

Despite their history in common, the cities’ demographic destinies have diverged. Harbin has kept growing and growing, and its urban area now has a population of something like five million. Vladivostok has had a population of something like 600,000 for the last three decades. Adding nearby settlements would raise the figure somewhat, but, by any definition, Vladivostok has fewer than a million people.

As usual, I focused on looking at non-automotive transportation facilities when I was in Harbin and Vladivostok.

Harbin and Vladivostok, at the same scale. GIS data from the Geofabrik and BBBike.org versions of OpenStreetMap.

Harbin, like just about every Chinese city of any size, has invested heavily in rail transit. It has a brand-new subway line running from northeast to south through many of the most built-up parts of the city. One more line is partially open, and the rest of this line and an additional one as well are under construction. Several more subway lines are planned.

Harbin. Metro entrance on Xidazhi Street.

Vladivostok’s rail facilities are older, but it has somewhat improved its electrified suburban train system and even added a branch to the airport (45 km from the central city). The Aeroekspress line, which runs for most of its length along Amurskiĭ Bay, provides one of the world’s most picturesque trips to and from an airport, but there are only five services a day in each direction (plus half a dozen suburban services that don’t make it to the airport). Vladivostok also has the somewhat decrepit remains of a once more extensive tram system:1 a single line running through the suburbs in its own right-of-way along the edge of major roads.

Vladivostok. The interchange between the single remaining tram line and buses and vans at Lugovai͡a Square.

Despite what would seem to be a less than useful route, when I was there, the tram line was doing pretty good business, running full trains every three or four minutes. The areas served are mostly low-prestige suburbs. There seem to be good connections to bus lines, especially at Lugovai͡a Square. Both Harbin and Vladivostok also have elaborate bus systems.

Harbin does a bit better than Vladivostok when it comes to special facilities for pedestrians as well. The walkway and park that run for several kilometers along the Songhua River, the central portion of which is called Stalin Park, are extremely pleasant. Tens (hundreds?) of millions of Chinese of course are compulsive exercisers, engaging in walking and stretching regimes (along with ballroom dancing!) every day, and the park along the Songhua is moderately crowded every morning and evening.

Harbin. Walkers in Stalin Park.

Even more impressive, the old one-track Binzhou Railway Bridge across the Songhua has been replaced by a higher and faster two-track bridge, and, instead of tearing the old bridge down, the authorities have converted it into a pedestrian facility, more than a kilometer long. Rails have been kept, and in places so have ties and ballast, protected by a glass cover. The surface has been made flat by asphalt and metal plates. Elegant and costly recycled pedestrian facilities are not the sort of thing one associates with China, but one could hardly do better than this bridge.2

Harbin. The Binzhou Railroad Bridge, repurposed as a pedestrian bridge across the Songhua River.

Vladivostok, with perhaps less need for facilities on quite this scale, has nonetheless built a very nice walking path along Amurskiĭ Bay, which runs on the western side of the peninsula south of the central city, past what has become quite a substantial neighborhood of apartment buildings for the well-to-do.

Vladivostok. The walkway that winds past beaches alongside a neighborhood of high-prestige housing on Amurskiĭ Bay.

It needs to be said that both Harbin and Vladivostok appear to have devoted much more energy into building facilities for automobiles than rail or pedestrian infrastructure. Harbin’s central city is filled with elaborate overpasses and underpasses, and its outer city has several freeways.

Highway overpass in Harbin.

Vladivostok has built a freeway to the airport, and it acquired two of the world’s longest cable-stayed bridges in 2012 to mark its hosting an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference. These bridges have no pedestrian paths.

Vladivostok’s Zolotoĭ (Golden) Bridge across its Golden Horn. Pedestrians are not allowed on this bridge.

But at least in Vladivostok drivers reliably yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. I was really struck (as I was in Moscow a year ago) at how secure one feels as a pedestrian in Vladivostok—as long as you’re not too bothered by having to use tunnels to cross certain streets; to walk hundreds of meters in some cases to find a legal crossing; and to wait a couple of minutes for the light to change at many intersections. In Harbin in contrast, except perhaps on the pedestrianized Zhongyang Street and adjoining blocks and along the Songhua River (a tiny part of the city), pedestrians are not made to feel secure at all. There are apparently laws stating that drivers must yield to pedestrians when, for example, making turns, but they are not enforced or obeyed. Might generally makes right on Harbin’s streets, just as it does elsewhere in urban China and in much of the Third World.

Pedestrian insecurity in Harbin and elsewhere in China would seem to undermine somewhat all the investment in rail facilities, but the subway was packed when I rode it, and Harbin appears to have a very large number of pedestrians. As in most Chinese cities—and in Russian ones too—a rising automobile culture has not wiped out a thriving pedestrian life. Even away from the central city, the sidewalks are often surprisingly crowded.

A recent study on physical activity in dozens of countries based on smartphone step counts suggests that people are more physically active in China and Russia (as well as in Japan and Ukraine) than in any other countries.3 The authors of this study are fully aware that using smartphone data likely biases the study somewhat in favor of measuring physical activity among the well-off, but the data do seem to ring true in many ways. It’s not clear whether one should attribute national differences in physical activity levels to culture or to some aspect of the built environment or both, but cities in both China and Russia, despite all sorts of issues associated with rapidly rising automobile use, seem to be places that have retained a reasonably healthy pedestrian life. It will be interesting to see whether it survives further rises in automobile ownership.


  1. The southern part of the line has been cut back since the map to which this link leads was made. See also the site compiled by Vladimir Sokurov, “Электротранспорт Владивостока.”
  2. I have been unable to find Western-language information on the transformation of Binzhou Bridge. There is quite a lot of Chinese-language material available online on the bridge’s history (search 滨州铁路桥), for example, “松花江滨州铁路桥 老建筑背后的故事” and the Chinese Wikipedia article, “滨州铁路桥.” In looking at this and similar sites, those who do not read Chinese will want to know that the Trans-Manchurian Railroad is known in Chinese as the China-Eastern Railway (中东铁路), which Google Translate mistranslates as “Middle Eastern Railway.”
  3. Tim Althoff, Rok Sosič, Jennifer L. Hicks, Abby C. King, Scott L. Delp, and Jure Leskovec. “Large-scale physical activity data reveal worldwide activity inequality,” Nature (no. 547, 2017), pages 336-339.
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