In response to growth, Chinese cities choose metros

» With rail rapid transit construction in virtually every major Chinese city, the country is betting on an urban future focused on transit.

Faced with limited political will for increased infrastructure funding, the debate over transportation planning in the United States has become increasingly dominated by an austerity-driven understanding of how to respond to growth. Unwilling or unable to develop ambitious plans for the future, many cities and their public officials have contented themselves with doing more with less.

Doing more with less is a strange maxim for an incredibly wealthy—and still growing—nation. Nevertheless, it is a pathology that has so altered many American planners’ sense of the acceptable that the mere idea of a master plan of significant investment attracts little more than dismissive scoffs. With blasé planners and uninterested politicians, “doing more” is readily transformed into actually doing very little.

Undoubtedly the overwhelming problems that infect that very core of the American planning apparatus—excessive reliance on consultants, acceptance of rapidly growing costs, failure to adapt to new technologies, compulsive regression to benefits for small groups over for the common interest—have encouraged this approach to understanding what is possible. And there are some cities (Los Angeles and Seattle come to mind most quickly) where these issues seem less acute.

But it is perhaps only in the act of comparison that the illness of American planning is made apparent. For in examining how one place acts in the context of another we can see whether the malignant cancer to which it has become resigned is, in fact, a factor of unavoidable shared inheritance, or if, rather, it is the consequence of its own poor choices that others have not made.

Evidence, indeed, suggests that there are choices when it comes to planning, that it is possible to have more, not less. I point to Chinese cities, which over the past ten years have acted to seize the reigns of transport planning through aggressive investment.

Having been reliant on bicycle transportation for much of the 20th century, Chinese cities were models of unmotorized mobility. But the country’s opening to capitalism in the 1990s brought massive motorization and the purchase of millions of automobiles. Millions of rural inhabitants streamed into urban cores. Many of the cities were woefully unprepared to respond to the sudden changes that ensued; until 1995, only one Chinese city—Beijing*—had any metro line, by which I mean fully grade-separated rapid transit.

What has occurred since then, however, has truly altered the way people use transportation in Chinese cities, and the changes will keep on coming.

Metro construction in these cities has exploded, rising exponentially especially since 2008. A country largely bereft of metros in the 1990s now has more than 5,000 kilometers of metro lines, more than four times the U.S. figure, which has increased very slowly since the 1960s. 25 Chinese cities now have systems, and the number is rising every year.

Of the 12 largest metro networks in the world by length, seven are now in China. As of December 2017, Guangzhou’s metro passed New York’s Subway in length, and Beijing and Shanghai have by far the longest systems.

Some estimates suggest that Chinese cities will have more than 10,000 kilometers of metro lines by 2020. That’s in addition to the almost 1,000 kilometers of bus rapid transit, hundreds of kilometers of tramways, and massive commuter rail systems that have been built in cities around the country—not to mention the enormous high-speed rail network that has been constructed since 2007.

This investment in metro capacity has been met by a popular shift in how people get around. Current Chinese metro lines collectively carry about twice as many riders as the entire American public transportation network, buses, trains, and all.

The “riding habit”—the frequency of transit use per capita—has risen quickly in city after city. Guangzhou and Beijing now have greater use of their systems than any American city except for New York, with the average resident there taking 189 and 167 rides per year, respectively, compared to 230 per year in Gotham. Beijing and Shanghai systems now each carry more than ten million daily riders, the two highest figures in the world. And they have both doubled their ridership since 2010. It seems likely that the other cities following their path in line construction will eventually follow their lead in ridership, too.

Metro construction in China is largely the product of a massive central government investment. Between 2010 and 2015, the nation spent the equivalent of $189 billion on such lines, and between 2016 and 2020, it is expected to spend between $262 and $308 billion more. The U.S. government dedicates about $2.3 billion per year in total for all transit projects, so less than one-fifteenth of the Chinese investment.

The story of Chinese investment in metro systems might be chalked up to processes of urbanization that were familiar, too, to U.S. cities in the early 1900s. It is easy to forget that American residents of major cities were the most reliant on transit in the world at the time, and that before the Great Depression, efforts to build subways and elevated rapid transit were widespread (if ineffective).

Yet actions in Chinese cities today are examples of contemporary planning, not simply responses to a particular historical moment that all cities eventually go through. The unabashed commitment to investment in rapid transit in city after city through support from the national government is an effort that never had its equal in the U.S. The growth in metro systems is being conducted in response to, not before, the increase in automobile dependence. Line construction is being undertaken in parallel with massive creation of dense new neighborhoods, a legacy whose hysteresis will produce generations of transit riders.

While Chinese cities have frequently been poor models of urbanism—massive highways, malls, and tower-in-the-park apartment blocks have taken root in too many places—they appear to be at least minimally cognizant of the reality that a future of unlimited automobile growth is unsustainable. Unlike any American city, for example, cities from Harbin to Shanghai to Shenzhen have implemented caps on vehicle registration and are examining congestion fees. Thus the growth in metro construction is being implemented in line with restrictions on overuse of cars.

The feats of Chinese infrastructure development are often dismissed by Western critics as the unrealizable actions of an authoritarian, illiberal country with no property rights, a poor citizenry, too-dense neighborhoods, and sheer government power. Its actions, then, are supposedly not meaningful for the deeply democratic American context.

Yet this is too much of a gross exaggeration of what is actually happening in China. While it is true that the country is authoritarian, land cannot simply “be taken” with no response from residents. Incomes have increased dramatically many of the larger cities, creating a middle class of individuals ready to contest projects they don’t like. Investment isn’t cheap; Chinese metros, while not as pricey as American ones, aren’t much cheaper to build than their European counterparts. And the residential areas that have been created around metro stations are intentionally dense, the product of a decision to be dense, not the product of poverty.

The difference between U.S. and Chinese approaches to planning for growth through transportation, then, really gets down to this question: are cities prepared to make the commitment to change, or not? American cities have largely abandoned the effort, hoping and praying that they may eventually wean people out of their cars through such under-supported devices as commuter incentives and tactical urbanism. Chinese cities, aided by massive central investment, are building a new society for themselves.

Data on Chinese metro expansion available here.

* Hong Kong has had extensive rail services throughout the twentieth century, and its metro, beginning in the 1970s, was quite popular, but it was a British protectorate until 1997.

Image at top: Guangzhou Metro, from Flickr user Enzo Jiang (cc).

12 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Beta Magellan

    I agree with the general point, but I’d place it a bit differently in time: the institutional weakness of American planning and “sense of the acceptable” are all true, but the failure mostly lies in the streetcar era through the Great Society. With some notable exceptions, the challenges for American transit planning aren’t necessarily so much in “lack of will” but in how to best modernize and build on existing infrastructure, improve and build on existing transit services (or make them successful), fill gaps in the network, and other such problems of mature cities whose major growth phase is behind them.

    • Abetted by the Highway Lobby, American politicians bowed to a combination of:

      • Well-marketed demand-creation for personal freedom on highways
      • White Middle-income desire to bypass other races & lower income citizens of all races
      • Wild rush to the suburbs for larger houses and yards

      Subject to those governing forces, American politicians allowed, and in many cases, encouraged dismemberment of streetcars from 1945-1963 to created a “Sense of the Acceptable” bias towards freeways & tollways. Isn’t ironic now that some U.S. cities will use highway tolls to help fund rapid transit projects?

  • The costs I cited in my 2013 post were from a few years before, and as far as I can tell the average cost is higher now – a couple of citations from 2014 to the present say the cost is a billion yuan per km, or around $250 million after PPP adjustment. It’s actually a hair above the Western European average, and not that much lower than the US relative to wages (taking New York’s costs as representative, which they’re not, but in the rest of the US transit ridership is so low that even normal-cost subways don’t usually pencil out).

  • bensh

    The commuter rail situation in Chinese cities is awkward at best, and certainly not massive. The only real lines that exist are two kinds: individual extensions built as feeders to the subway system, which are quite crowded and awkward to transfer, and short mainline services which run as well as American lines (1-2TPH) and carry 20,000 people/day at max. Because it’s run as part of the intercity network, the stations are hard to get to in the first place from the CBD, and the MoR has no real pass program for commuters, so all tickets have to be bought bulk in advance.

  • Mauro Buratti

    Although not a US citizen I work in Transportation business and I try to keep the market trend watched.
    I dare to suggest that no real comparison can be made between the two countries, I mean no economical one.
    China subsidize a lot also out of China, with the result to be the main “customer” of those 5-6 companies worldwide which build signaling systems. The reverse effect is that, yes maybe the face value of 2 similar projects in China & US could look similar, but the cost that a US-based (or wherever else) project must sustain is much higher.

  • Richard

    “[U]ntil 1995, only one Chinese city—Beijing*—had any metro line, by which I mean fully grade-separated rapid transit.”

    Tianjin’s first line opened in 1976. However due to the cultural revolution and construction delays, most of the line didn’t see service until 1984. Still a decade before any city besides Beijing has a Metro.

  • Chad N

    This article could also use a comparison to federal highway spending. From the numbers in this article, the Chinese federal government spends between $30 to $60 billion per year on urban metro rail. I don’t know how much they spend on highways or intercity rail (a lot, I believe). The US Federal Government spends about $50 billion per year on transportation, the vast majority for highways. So the money and the will to spend exists in the USA – it is just that the money is spent on highways instead of transit.

    (Keep in mind that China has more than 4 times the population, so could spend 4x the USA for equivalent investment if costs were the same.)

  • Joe

    What upsets me is the fact that transportation progress in the most densely populated part of the country, the Northeast, is held up by ideologues in Washington. The US might see progress if we weren’t tied to leaders who don’t personally believe in public transit and so don’t want to support it or build it. But even beyond that, our unwillingness to build subways and train lines – or even just maintain the ones we have (e.g. NJ Transit’s mess) – is insane in the face of a country whose metropolitan regions are where 21st century growth has been and will be. Our country may be vast and empty in most areas, but we need innovation in the places where the people and the economy are.

  • dblarsen

    I think a big difference between the two countries is the fact that a portion of what China builds is in new development zones (mileage-wise), or Greenfield sites. Chinas lines are fulfilling transport needs in newly developed areas that also get to feed their massive urban centers. Here in the US, most of the lines we need to build are located in heavily developed, dense areas, and are on privately owned land. We have spent 50+ years building freeways in the gaps that could have supported rail infrastructure. We didn’t build what we should have at the time, but it’s there now and we have a transport system that can’t yet be removed and allows those communities to function. Hindsight is 20-20, and if we had any idea of the ramifications of our past decisions we, I hope, would have made different moves. We have growth but not China growth, both population and economic, and its hard to imagine that some struggling souls in the rust belt will see a chunk of their meager wages being wisely spent on a transport system that they can’t comprehend, and don’t want to use (their loss). I guess we’ll never know, and kudos to China for reading the cards as they lie…just my 2cents, what do I know…

    • Many American transportation planners had foresight for more rapid transit and improved passenger rail. There are many examples of great rapid transit plans for LA, Houston, Baltimore, Cleveland and other major cities since the 1960s. But their political and marketing power, however, was overcome by the Highway Lobby.

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