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November 11, 2013

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A tale of two cities catches on with the old

It is the worst of times for people wanting to buy homes amid soaring prices in downtown Shanghai. But it is the best of times, at least for Huang Huihua, who has just started her own tale of two cities.

Huang, a Shanghai native in her 60s, and her partner recently rented out their apartment in Jing’an District for 9,000 yuan (US$1,477) a month and moved to a unit they bought several years ago in Huaqiao County in the city of Kunshan in neighboring Jiangsu Province.

“The surroundings are quiet and it suits a pair of seniors like us,” Huang said after living her first month away from the hustle-bustle of downtown Shanghai. “We don’t require much in life now, and we can get most of what we need here.”

Huang lives in the International City Garden on Ludi Avenue, 2 kilometers from the Zhaofeng Road Station on Metro Line 11. Service on the new Huaqiao section started last month, making Line 11 the country’s first Metro route to connect a major metropolis with a neighboring province.

It takes about 70 minutes to reach Shanghai’s downtown Xujiahui shopping area, at a fare of only 7 yuan.

Whole new vista

The new rapid transit link has opened up a whole new vista for those who seek cheaper housing but want easy access to Shanghai. House prices around the Huaqiao, Guangming Road and Zhaofeng Road metro stations in Jiangsu have risen by 8 percent this year. On the first sales day for 1,400 apartments in one residential neighborhood there, all the units were snapped up, with 80 percent of buyers coming from Shanghai.

The math tells the story. The average price for existing apartments in a 2-kilometer radius from Metro Line 11 stations in Huaqiao is 9,000 yuan a square meter. Compared to that, housing prices in downtown Shanghai costs three times more.

The trend toward “two city” life especially appeals to younger people who just start their careers or those even a bit older but don’t earn hefty wages but need more space for their families. They work in Shanghai and are willing to sacrifice time and convenience for the sake of buying a home or buying a bigger home than they could afford in downtown Shanghai. Many have their own cars and drive to work every day.

Huang, whose son works in downtown Shanghai and would never consider living as far out as Huaqiao, understands the trade-off. “A 90-minute one-way commute every day is just too much for ordinary workers,” she said.

Still, she does it. Although she has reached the age of retirement, Huang still works part-time for a company on Jiangsu Road in downtown Shanghai. It takes her an hour and a half from doorstep to office. It’s time-consuming, and Huang said she wouldn’t do it if she had to work five days a week.

Support facilities

Zhang Song, a professor of urban planning at Tongji University, said crowding in downtown areas and progress in rapid transit means that urban sprawl is extending its tentacles.

But the trend requires careful government planning, he said, pointing to successes in Japan and some European cities.

“Support facilities like shopping areas and hospitals should go before the promotion of the so-called ‘two-city life,’” he said. “The most common traffic mode linking neighboring cities is still highways. We already have too many vehicles on the roads, which is why Metro and railways must be better promoted as transit for people who work in Shanghai but live in a neighboring province.”

The extension of Shanghai Metro network into Jiangsu tests the idea of “two-city living” in the Yangtze River Delta. Construction of a new Metro system in Jiangsu’s Suzhou City is well underway, and Zhang said proposals to link it to Shanghai’s system have been discussed.

“Shanghai Metro network’s extension to suburban areas and even to Jiangsu Province has done well in aspects like providing more choices for tourism and entertainment,” he said. “But a mature ‘two-city life’ system still needs years of planning and construction.”

Line 11’s Huaqiao extension has been attracting many senior passengers since its launch. “Day trippers” from downtown areas can take the Metro and then connect by bus to popular tourism spots in Jiangsu, like Qiandeng Ancient Town and Zhouzhuang Watertown.

For locals, shuttle buses provide connection to Metro stations if they want to shop or visit friends and family in downtown Shanghai.

Wider choice in Anting

Basic living facilities are available for residents in communities around the three Line 11 stations in Huaqiao. There are supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants within 1 or 2 kilometers. However, there are few wet markets. Huang said there is an E-mart less than a kilometer from her home, where she does most of her shopping.

Sometimes food vendors appear in her neighborhood, hawking vegetables and eggs.

Those who prefer a wider variety of goods travel to Huaqiao Ancient Town or to Anting, a town in Shanghai’s Jiading District bordering Kunshan.

Anting is one stop from the Zhaofeng Road Station. Huang said her 63-year-old retired neighbor prefers to cycle to Anting and stock up on several days’ groceries.

Huang’s community has a kindergarten inside the neighborhood, and primary and middle schools are not far away.

However, medical services are a problem. The Shanghai Medical Insurance Card cannot be used in Huaqiao County yet, and the closest hospital, Eastern Greenland Hospital, is a private one which opened only two weeks ago. It’s about 3 kilometers from Huang’s community and doesn’t offer a full range of services. Huang said she would go to the Jiading District branch of Ruijin Hospital in Anting if she needed medical care.

Her community has an activities center where residents can play cards, chess or just chat over tea. Sometimes residents organize events like dances. There is also a cinema several blocks away.

All in all, Huang admitted, the lifestyle in Huaqiao may be nice for older people like her, but it would hardly appeal to younger folks used to the buzz of Shanghai lifestyle.



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