Beijing has exploded over the past few decades, thanks to China's economic boom. Whole neighborhoods have been demolished, constructed, or "renovated," and the relentless march toward modernity has caused some controversy. Old neighborhoods such as Gulou’s much-loved hutongs (narrow lanes), near the Drum and Bell towers in north-central Beijing, are being eyed by developers. Old-timers can barely recognize many sections of the city, and maps go out of date almost overnight. It's a good idea to get the latest bilingual version on arrival.
The city's five concentric ring roads look like a target, with the Forbidden City in the bull's-eye. Note that, oddly, there is no First Ring Road; this is commonly thought to have been the original tramline that circled the Forbidden City until it was disbanded in the 1950s. The Second Ring Road follows the line of the old city walls, and consequently many of the stops have the suffix "men" (meaning "gate"). The circular subway Line 2 runs below it. The Third Ring Road passes through part of Beijing's Central Business District (CBD) and links up with the Airport Expressway.
The three remaining ring roads have equally unimaginative names (Fourth, Fifth, Sixth). Along the center of the north Fourth Ring Road is Olympic Park, where you'll find the impressive National Stadium (the "Bird's Nest") and the National Aquatics Center (the "Water Cube"). If you're sticking to central Beijing, these roads won't be much use, though fare-hungry taxi drivers would love you to believe otherwise.
Beijing's traffic can be a nightmare, especially at rush hour when the gridlock extends from the center of the city all the way out to the Fourth Ring Road. With the opening of a number of new subway lines and several more expected to follow by 2016, the subway is a good way to escape the bumper-to-bumper traffic. The Airport Express Line (20 minutes from the airport to the Dongzhimen subway stop northeast of the city center) has proven to be a boon. Also a great success is the city's electronic fare system, where all rides cost a very reasonable Y2.
The city's wide thoroughfares are laid out on a grid system, with roads running north–south or east–west. These compass points often make up part of the street name, so bei (north), dong (east), nan (south), xi (west), and zhong (middle) are useful words to know. Networks of ancient lanes and alleys known as hutongs run between these main streets.
Beijing's most important thoroughfare runs east–west along the northern edge of Tiananmen Square. Generally known as Chang'an Jie, or the "Avenue of Heavenly Peace," it actually changes names several times along its length (as do many other major streets).