|Click here for large (2000 px wide) version of Shanghai Metro Map|
» System will carry about five million passengers a day. Dozens of other Chinese cities are spending billions of dollars on similar grade-separated transit systems.
If China’s massive investment in high-speed rail is impressive, its huge spending binge in local rapid transit is remarkable. And nowhere is that record more dramatic than in Shanghai, the world’s most populous city proper.
Just fifteen years after the first segment of its first metro line opened, the city’s metro network has gained the title as the world’s longest with the opening of a section of Line 10 last week. This followed years of continuous construction and the opening of pieces of Lines 2, 9, and 11 over the past month. In anticipation of the inauguration of the city’s Expo 2010 event on May 1st, Line 13 will open sometime in the next two weeks.
Now Shanghai offers 282 stations and 420 km (261 mi) of lines, compared to 408 km in London and 368 km in New York, which now have the world’s second and third-largest rapid transit networks. Unlike those cities, which have only minor line extensions planned, Shanghai’s expansion plans are only half complete: not only does the city have 140 km of more lines currently under construction and intended for service by 2012, but it has an additional 300 km planned to be ready for operations by 2020, by which time this city alone will have more rapid transit mileage than the entire country of Japan.
The Shanghai Metro is now capable of handling about five million passengers a day; the system is likely to become the world’s most-used, passing Tokyo and Moscow, by the time the full construction program is complete.
Beijing is pursuing a similarly extension metro expansion project, but these cities aren’t alone: twelve Chinese municipalities currently have rapid transit, nineteen more have systems under construction, and an additional seventeen new networks are in planning. The national government has committed $150 billion to the projects by 2015, though additional funds originate from the municipalities themselves, such as the progressive and independent City of Shanghai. It’s a country-wide investment in urban transportation unparalleled in human history.
The American government, managing a much wealthier country than China, typically commits about two billion dollars a year to transit capital projects nationwide.
China’s aggressive efforts are a response to the country’s rapid urbanization, which has brought tens of millions of rural peasants into the cities as a result of increasing economic development. Though the Chinese automobile market is now larger than that of the United States, when compared on a per capita basis, it is still relatively small, especially considering that most Chinese car purchases are of first vehicles, not second or third, as are typical American consumer investments. This means that these quickly growing cities must respond with significant spending on improved public transportation — and they’ve chosen rapid transit as their preferred technology.
Specifically, Shanghai’s effort is an attempt to avoid American-style commuting habits even as its population increases in prosperity. With a per capita GDP three times the national average, Shanghai must endeavor to ensure that its growing number of middle-class inhabitants don’t clog the streets with their cars.
The European and North American experience shows that it can be done: In the first half of the 20th century, cities like New York, Berlin, and London reacted to a growing population and densification of land use by constructing extensive rapid transit networks and the results today are cities with high rates of public transportation use in spite of wealthy populations; Shanghai is likely to follow in the same mold.
But the extent and rapidity by which Shanghai is expanding its system reinforces the high-speed rail-driven sense that the West is falling behind, at least in infrastructure investment. Though no American and European cities are growing as quickly as their Chinese counterparts, there are significant demands for transportation improvements that are being unmet in virtually every major Western metropolitan region, with the possible exception of Madrid, Barcelona, and Paris, which are all spending billions to extend their transit networks out of the traditional urban core and into near suburbs. These neighborhoods have for years been deprived of adequate public transportation despite a real demand; most regions, however, aren’t spending on new line capacity.
Unlike the U.S. or Europe, China benefits from strong economic growth, making these investments more feasible, especially since construction costs are lower. Nonetheless, if Shanghai’s construction is so extensive as to be impossible to replicate in the more affluent parts of the world, current efforts in most major American and European cities are modest, doing very little in terms of transportation to respond to significant increases in population since the first half of the 20th century. They’re not making much of an effort to prepare for their increasingly urban futures by building new transit links.
Image my own work but based on standard Shanghai Metro Map.