By Iris Zhao and Jessica Macy Yu
BEIJING, (Reuters) - The commute for millions of people living in and around Beijing is a daily grind that is ever more time-consuming, costly and crowded as residents dodge, push and elbow their way onto buses and subways.
And there is no immediate relief in sight in a city that has more than 21 million residents and is growing fast.
Indeed, expansion over the next 15 years will put the Chinese capital at the center of a new mega-city, as it integrates with the port city of Tianjin and neighboring Hebei province, officials say. Current estimates of the population in the combined area is around 110 million.
By the time it is completed, the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei project will span 212,000 square kilometers (82,000 square miles), or more than twice the size of South Korea.
Infrastructure has not yet caught up with the population growth - rail lines and highways are still under construction and road traffic is often gridlocked.
Given the existing commuter woes in Beijing, some critics are raising questions about urban sprawl and the potential environmental impact of the megacity.
Traffic jams in and around Beijing have become notorious, including one in 2010 that stretched 60 miles (100 km).
State planners say that by 2020 a transportation network will span the megacity cluster, and signs of progress should be seen by 2017, according to the official Xinhua news agency, which cited a government document.
UP EARLY FOR LONG JOURNEY
For the moment, getting to work can take time and patience.
Reuters recently tracked residents on their daily commute from home to work. Their journeys, which crisscross the city, are as diverse as their individual stories.
Take, for instance, Lai Yongmei, 47, a migrant worker who commutes 90 minutes from her village home in the Shunyi district to the chic Sanlitun neighborhood to clean corporate offices.
Or Li Nan, a make-up artist who wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to commute the roughly 95 km (60 miles) from Tianjin to Beijing using a combination of bus, high-speed rail and subway.
With the cost of living in Beijing rising, many residents have moved farther to the city's outskirts - and beyond.
For people like An Zi, a movie producer who relocated to the Dongsanqi village in northern Beijing this year, the commute can take two hours. An's transport costs are more than 200 yuan ($30) a month, or about a fifth of his monthly rent.
"I've considered buying an apartment in Yanjiao (in Hebei province) but not inside Beijing, it's too expensive," An said, adding that living in Dongsanqi was the only way he could afford to live in an apartment by himself.
For Li, the make-up artist, moving to an apartment in Tianjin that she purchased for 1.2 million yuan last year has so far reaped dividends.
"I spend about 100 yuan on transportation every day, but it's worth it," Li said. "I'm living in my own apartment and I don't have to pay rent. It's a good deal."
The average Beijing commute has stretched to 52 minutes, placing it 4 minutes above the average commute in New York City, and 1 minute above Shanghai’s, according to surveys.
Beijing residents have worked out creative ways to avoid peak-hour jams. Some wake before dawn, some share taxi rides, others use car-hailing apps.
For Yoko Wu, a Hong Kong transplant who lives in the Beijing suburbs with her family and children, Uber has become her main way to beat traffic and get work done on the road.
"No one likes the traffic here," she said. "It's a fixable problem though."
(Editing by Frances Kerry)