China Expands Its Investment in Rapid Transit, Paving Way for Future Urban Growth

» 1,900 miles of rapid transit planned for world’s most populated country by 2015.

Most of China’s growth is concentrated in its large urban centers, which will house fifty percent of the country’s population by 2020 and 75% by 2050. For these increasingly huge megacities, the central government has no choice but to develop adequate measures to transport the population. Following the American model of car dependence is simply not possible because of high densities and inadequate space. With its high-speed rail network, now the longest in the world, the Chinese are providing efficient intercity links into downtowns.

But it’s in urban rail networks that the country has made the biggest strides towards increasing mobility within cities. Shanghai’s huge Metro, the longest on earth, is just one among eleven currently operating in China. Dozens of other cities have rapid transit systems either under construction or in planning.

Now the central government has made a commitment to spend up to one trillion one hundred billion U.S. dollars by 2015 on such grade-separated urban public transportation corridors. This is part of a one trillion-dollar investment in urban infrastructure nationwide; China will also spend $450 billion on railway construction over the same period. By the end of this year, China will offer a total of 870 miles of metro systems, up from around 600 today, on the way to 1,900 miles in five years. Far more is planned by 2020, especially in the east coast powerhouses of Beijing, Shanghai, and the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong megaplex.

Urban infrastructure investment has consumed an average of 2.6% of China’s GDP since 1994. With a national growth rate predicted to hold at between seven and ten percent a year, the country will be able to guarantee its huge level of investment.

Total infrastructure investment across all levels of government accounts for roughly 1% of American GDP. The U.S. commits about $100 billion a year to all forms of transportation spending.

Whether China’s spending will be enough to prevent the rapid rise in car use there is unknown. Chinese’s per capita automobile ownership has increased from 24 cars per 1,000 people to 40 per 1,000, though that’s far less than the 765 cars per 1,000 people in the United States. The country’s decision to implement tolls on virtually all new highways and the use of vehicle restrictions in the central zones of cities like Shanghai and Beijing will spur more use of public transit.

China better be preparing for the future, though, when it will need to spend more rebuilding its infrastructure than constructing it anew. One hopes the Chinese have developed more stable long-term operations and maintenance funds than have those of us in North America.

38 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • EngineerScotty

    A common pattern, repeated throughout history:

    * Emerging nation spends lots of money–which, at the time, is often easy to come by due to extensive export surpluses–on buildouts of infrastructure.

    * Time passes. Built-out infrastructure becomes obsolete and worn out.

    * Currency inflates, capital flight occurs.

    * Even maintenance projects on the existing stuff–let alone the newest technologies–soon become too expensive to contemplate.

    * Country watches with awe as newer emerging power spends its horde on massive infrastructure buildouts.

    This observation is not intended (should it be construed this way) as an excuse for the failure of US leaders to lead–either in the past, when maintenance was neglected and trillions of dollars spent on other stuff–or now, when there is still a great deal of politically powerful people that view infrastructure projects (especially those they don’t intend to personally use) as pork.

  • Well, look at Europe dude. I get your point, but maybe that only happens here and in other countries, but if Europe can do it so can we.

  • Gordy

    China is still a developing country and most of its people are still too poor to afford a private car. But it’s also rapidly urbanizing. So large-scale mass transit is a necessity for now. But a few decades hence, the situation may be very different. As China’s citizens get richer and cars become affordable to more and more people its transportation system will most likely become increasingly car-oriented. Sprawl will be limited mainly by geographical constraints, not consumer choice.

    • Daniel

      That’s possible, but my question would be where all the petroleum to build and fuel all of these cars will come from. By the time the Chinese start having this level of affluence, gasoline may be prohibitively expensive. As China and India (and Brazil and Indonesia) develop, the price of gas climbs due to increased demand and dwindling supply, auto-based travel may level off and start to decline (this will also have serious repercussions in the U.S.).

      China also has issues with limited space to grow American-style. There’s just not room for the infrastructure (highways, garages, on street parking, gas stations, etc.) to support 500 million new cars, not to mention worsening China’s already poor air quality. Perhaps electric cars will come into vogue–the question still remains how to accommodate and power these cars–the electricity will have to come from somewhere.

      China is wise to be investing in mass transit. As it can be powered by electricity, it’s less directly tied to the oil supply.

    • @Gordy
      That is totally impossible. Already, with only a fraction of the people owning cars, people who own cars are using transit because the roads have become parking lots.

      From the article “Following the American model of car dependence is simply not possible because of high densities and inadequate space.”

  • Ocean Railroader

    Consdering China has One Billon people and the US 300 millon and they both have about the same land area China is doing the right thing by building massive transit systems. Somehow I think if China had one billon cars on the roads or at least 800 pur 1000 people that would be a nightmare for the Chinise officals who have to build all those roads for them.

    Oil Prices will keep going up and that might possibly indanger China’s exports which depend on spending in other counties.

  • Glen

    All the more reason to get a new and revised trasportaion bill passed by early next year so we can start building at least something HSR

  • Gordy

    The cars of three or four decades from now won’t run on petroleum. They’ll mostly be electric, and run on batteries or fuel cells. And they’ll be enormously more energy-efficient than today’s cars. China is already becoming a major player in new auto tech.

    As for the availability of land for roads and parking and urban sprawl, China’s population density actually isn’t all that high – about 360 people per square mile. Germany, for example, which has over ten times as many cars per capita as China, is almost twice as dense. The problem in China is that much of the land is mountainous or otherwise unsuitable for development. That geographical constraint may be the biggest barrier to sprawl in China, not goverment policy or consumer choice.

    • dejv

      China’s population density is actually high – if you don’t overlook that vast majority of it’s population live in coastal plain (and most of the rest lives in Sichuan).

    • Tom West

      saying that cars will be electric avoids the question of where the electricty will come from. China’s electricity is mostly from coal, the most polluting form of electricity generation going.

  • Is there anything Mix-ryG-son-dy says that doesn’t come straight out of an auto industry press release?

  • It’s sad that China will be building all this in ten years and in our most densest city, New York, we will build 3 new stops on second avenue and one on 7 line extension. We can’t even afford the second more useful stop on the 7 line extension. Seriously you think we could afford a new subway line or extension in each city every 50 years. Look at New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and you’ll see otherwise. So frustrating.

  • Daniel

    Too be fair, Brandi, N.Y.C. already has a vast subway network (although still inadequate in some ways). And New York is building the Second Avenue subway right now, the first major subway line built in New York in 60 years. There’s a new commuter rail tunnel being constructed from Brooklyn to Manhattan so that LIRR trains can come directly to Grand Central Station.

    True, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago could use major investment. It’s mainly just a funding bias; roads get 70x as much funding as public transit.

    Car culture is very ingrained in the U.S. (along with its associated denigration of public transport), and it’s going to take skyrocketing oil prices to break us of our psychology of previous investment. I suspect when gas starts hitting 6 and 7 dollars a gallon in the U.S. that there will be a major realignment of attitudes and priorities toward public (and specifically) rail transit.

    Already we have new heavy rail being built (2nd Ave Subway in New York, D.C.’s Silver Line), new light rail in Phoenix, Washington D.C., Seattle, Baltimore, Denver), new streetcars (D.C., Cincinnati, Seattle), new Commuter Rail, and talk of regional High-Speed Rail. While things aren’t great for the U.S.’s rail infrastructure, they’re better now than at any time since the 60’s and early 70’s.

  • Daniel

    Fuel cell vehicles are still impractical, and likely will remain so. The main way hydrogen fuel cells are charged right now ultimately derives from petroleum energy, making them ultimately less efficient than gas engines. I can see battery electric vehicles filling a gap, but one also has to consider that petroleum is used not only for fueling cars, but also for asphalt, making tires, the plastics used in the car itself, etc. Thus, rising oil prices will have effects far beyond merely rising gasoline prices. Of course, some miracle energy source could just come out of nowhere, but we shouldn’t assume it will just because of human ingenuity.

    Also, keep in mind that about 40% of China isn’t really suited for habitation (too dry, too much temperature extremes, etc.), which is why 95% of the population lives in the eastern half of the country. And take into account that China would be loathe to lose its limited arable land to massive sprawling development. Call me skeptical that China will develop along the lines of 1950/60’s American-style sprawl.

  • Gordy

    GM expects to have a production-ready automobile fuel cell by 2015. The cost of the technology is plummeting. Most analysts seem to believe that hydrogen-powered fuel cells are likely to become the dominant form of electric vehicle propulsion over the long term. You don’t need petroleum to produce the hydrogen. All you need is electricity and water.

    But perhaps the dominant form will be batteries instead. IBM is working on commercializing a new battery technology, lithium-air, that provides ten times the energy density of today’s lithium-ion batteries.

    China is already starting to sprawl. Beijing now has 6 ring roads. The outer ones look remarkably like the suburban/exurban freeways/expressways that surround many U.S. cities. Even with all the investment in HSR, China’s express highway network is growing faster than its rail network. Car ownership in China is growing at an astronomical rate. Yes, geography will constrain sprawl. But as Europe shows, there is enormous potential for growth in car travel even at much higher population densities.

    • Not all Chinese cities want to look like Beijing. For example, Shanghai auctions license plates, to limit the number of cars in the city. Beijing politics is different, leading to a more auto-friendly city policy. National politics is a completely different flavor – there’s a massive investment in freeways, but they’re all tolled. Forbes actually ran an article a few months ago lamenting the fact that the freeways in China are expected to be profitable.

      I know you like to think (or at least want others to think) that every city in the world naturally wants and has to look like Houston. But government policy does play a role; it can usher in a city of 800 cars per 1,000 people or in a city of 100 cars.

      • Gordy

        Sprawl seems to be the virtually inevitable consequence when a society becomes wealthy enough for mass ownership of private automobiles, except where it is precluded by geographical barriers. America is the sprawliest nation mainly because we have so much land suitable for development and because we became rich enough for mass car ownership long before most other countries.

        • Daniel

          This is true to an extent; America is an extreme version of auto-driven development, in that unlike in other countries with some degree of sprawl, we don’t bother trying to provide new developments with public transport infrastructure.

          To the extent that sprawl is “inevitable”, governments have a duty to curtail it. Sprawl is aesthetically unpleasant, environmentally destructive, and wastes resources. Sprawl also creates massive traffic problems that sap productivity.

          The challenge of the next 50-100 years will be weaning America off the automobile, and back to public transport in the form of trains, interurbans, subways, streetcars and buses.

          • Gordy

            Governments have a duty to follow the wishes of the people who elect them. Governments that make laws and policies that depart radically from the preferences of the voters are likely to find themselves thrown out of office at the next election. Barring a massive change in consumer and voter preferences about how to live and get around, a massive shift in government policy away from automobiles and sprawl, and towards dense urban forms and mass transit, seems highly unlikely.

        • You’re portraying sprawl as if it’s only a function of wealth, when it’s demonstrably not. If US versus Europe sounds too contrived to you, then let’s look at middle-income island countries. The Caribbean has multiple countries with a GDP per capita of about $20,000 and a mid-three figure density, which we can compare. It turns out that exactly one Caribbean country has high car ownership: Puerto Rico, with 617 vehicles per 1,000 people. The rest range from 150 to 300. Puerto Rico is far from being the richest part of the Caribbean, and is among the densest islands. The only thing separating it from Barbados or Antigua or Trinidad and Tobago is that it has a US-style transportation policy.

          It’s not enough to say that cars are associated with wealth and leave it at that. Many things are; economic policy is about allocating scarce goods and services. It’s not inevitable that a country of the USA’s wealth should have 750 cars per 1,000 people, just like it’s not inevitable that a country of Japan’s wealth should have 170 rail trips per capita.

          Your reinvention of yourself as a great democrat, after years of being a libertarian and arguing that roads pay for themselves, is quite amazing. But it’s still wrong. High-income democracies have chosen against sprawl and cars, often with success. Sometimes it wasn’t even a choice – massive road investment was just never on the agenda.

  • NikolasM

    The trick is to make sure that most people aren’t dependent on a car to get around even if they own one, something we failed at miserably.

  • Gordy

    “The trick is to make sure that most people aren’t dependent on a car to get around even if they own one”

    The problem is that you can’t realistically reduce car dependency without increasing transit dependency. You’re just trading one form of dependency for another. For transit to rival the speed and convenience of cars, you need a dense environment. But higher density makes car travel slower and more stressful and more expensive. Roads become more congested and there’s less space for parking. Instead of having their own garage or driveway, homeowners may have to park on the street. If people wanted to trade car-oriented lifestyles for transit-oriented ones they would do so.

    • Frank

      Park on the street? The horror!

      People are choosing density over sprawl. The affluent are choosing transit served neighborhoods over exurbs. But because density is limited in America, the demand for environments that have it is making them very expensive. That’s forcing the poor out of urban areas and into the “car-oriented lifestyles” you claim people prefer. I’m not sure I’d call that choice.

      http://www.brookings.edu/metro/stateofmetroamerica.aspx

      We need to expand the “supply” of density with investments in infrastructure and appropriate zoning so people actually can have a choice.

      • Gordy

        “People are choosing density over sprawl.”

        Frank, did you even read your own source? The first of the Five New Realities reported in the Brookings study is that the outer areas of America’s large metropolitan areas have been growing at three times the rate of the cities and inner suburbs. How, exactly, do you interpret that as people “choosing density over sprawl”?

        Not only have the suburbs increased their share of the overall population, but they have increased their share of all four racial groups (white, asian, hispanic and black). By 2008, for the first time ever, majorities of each of these groups lived in suburbs. Also, the share of upper-income households grew faster in the suburbs than in cities. It’s all right there in the report.

        • How, exactly, do you interpret that as people “choosing density over sprawl”?

          You’ve tried to spin this on the Austin Contrarian, too, back before you changed your name, and it remains wrong. The problem is that the report defines “inner suburbs” too loosely: it includes any county the majority of whose population is contained in an urban area. For example, in the New York MSA, the only county that’s considered non-urban is Pike County, Pennsylvania, population 60,000. While New York City is growing faster than its suburbs, Pike County is the fastest-growing suburban county, which skews things.

          • Gordy

            Alon Levy,

            You’re wrong yet again. The report doesn’t define “inner suburb” at all, but it most definitely does not use the term to refer to “any county the majority of whose population is contained in an urban area.” Not only would that make no sense as a definition of “inner suburb,” but you have invented that definition out of thin air.

            As the report’s examples show, by “inner suburb” the authors mean older and generally higher-density suburbs that are closer to the central city. They also use terms “high density suburb” and “mature suburb” to refer to these areas.

            Unless you seriously believe that the “outer areas” of a metropolitan area are generally denser and more transit-oriented than “inner suburbs and cities” your claim makes absolutely no sense at all.

          • I’m glad you agree that it’s stupid to define the entire extent of an urban area as an inner suburb. Now realize that that’s what Brookings is doing…

            There’s a big difference between saying “people are moving away from the cities,” which is wrong in general, and saying “the cities and the furthest exurbs are growing at the expense of the suburbs,” which is correct in the Northeast and NorCal.

  • Ocean Railroader

    I think the traffic getting worse will naturaly make people want transit after a awhile. I think in China if it comes down to it and there are 1 billon new cars on the road that should have a effect on them. Even in older places in the US where the car has been King for 60 years things are starting to change on there own. The goverment though should fund this willing natural change towards transit but not impose or force people to. This natural movement is prity strong on it’s own.

  • Gordy

    Yonah,

    “Now the central government has made a commitment to spend up to one trillion U.S. dollars by 2015 on such grade-separated urban public transportation corridors.”

    I am curious as to where you get this number from. The article you link to reports a figure of up to seven trillion yuan ($1.03 trillion) for “urban public facilities,” of which upwards of 700 billion yuan will go to “urban rail transit.” 700 billion yuan is only one-tenth of the total, about $100 billion for the five-year period.

    The Forbes piece is interesting because it suggests China’s transportation policies are not terribly rational. The huge and growing express highway system is mostly empty, because the tolls have been set much too high. HSR ticket prices are also beyond the reach of most Chinese people. The route system is poorly designed and integrated, serving destinations for which there is little demand. And rail stations do not connect properly to mass transit systems. This is what happens when you have huge public spending with little or no democratic oversight.

    • Nope, you’re right. Apologies. I’ve made corrections above.

      That doesn’t diminish the extent of construction — with 1,900 miles planned by 2015, China will have more than twice the rapid transit mileage compared to the United States. And most of those lines will have been built since 2000. The country is adapting rapidly to the needs of its urban constituency.

      I should say, in response to what you said about the failings of the high-speed system, that it is interesting that almost all of the metro lines being built are in cities with high-speed service, as demonstrated by the map above. Also, though some rail stations are on the outskirts of the city, virtually every one of those metros is planned to stop directly at the high-speed stations.

  • Ethan

    Gordy: You have a point about the lack of accountability causing the building of useless objects, and China will have to avoid the fate of Japan, where vested interests in the government lead to roads, bridges, airports, and dams which are a huge waste of money.

    But if China waits until it is economically viable to build railways and airports, it will cost many times more to build and maintain them. It’s best to leverage the hoards of workers willing to work for a pittance when they still exist…and they will be drying up soon.

  • Dan

    Great map. But most long term plans aren’t correct, as you can easily see checking the Chinese Wikipedia in 2 minutes.

    • Care to identify errors? Chinese Wikipedia was one of my original sources. I would certainly change the map if I had a better clue of where I went wrong. Note that the mileage in yellow for the lines is what’s planned for 2020, not long-term.

  • Ch

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lanxin_High-Speed_Railway

    Construction began in November 2009 of the 1,776 km high speed rail between Lanzhou and Urumqi. The trains will run at 350 km/h. A hugely expensive project for a low population region.

  • Ch

    “Most of China’s growth is concentrated in its large urban centers, which will house fifty percent of the country’s population by 2020 and 75% by 2050.”

    I think urban growth will be more rapid.

    “At the end of 2009, mainland China’s total population was 1.334 billion, with 712 million (53.4%) and 622 million (46.6%) residing in the rural and urban areas respectively.[1] (Mainland China does not include Hong Kong, Macao, or Taiwan.) The rural population fraction was 64% in 2001 and 74% in 1990. The annual population growth rate was estimated at 0.59% (2006 estimate).”

    From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urbanization_in_China#cite_note-0

  • America is the best country on earth, by far. All the other b.s. postings on this site are a result of jealousy towards America. China will never amount to anything than a smokin’ wreck with salary men eating cockroaches while the average Yank eats real ground beef.
    Americans drink untainted milk (with melamine)- The Chinese? They couldn’t get untainted milk if they tried.

    And Europe? Don’t get me started? They never even learned how to wash themselves properly. The women still got hair on their legs and the men are cowards – ready to take Muslim terror-pork up their back-sides.

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