Beijing China Guangzhou Hong Kong Infrastructure Metro Rail Shanghai

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).

Infrastructure Metro Rail Shanghai

Shanghai’s Metro, Now World’s Longest, Continues to Grow Quickly as China Invests in Rapid Transit

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.

China is.

Image my own work but based on standard Shanghai Metro Map.

Beijing China High-Speed Rail Shanghai

Beijing-Shanghai HSR Link to Average Speeds of Over 200 mph

Railway Ministry announces trip will take less than four hours, versus previously announced five.

China’s Beijing-Shanghai high-speed connection, which is the most important link in the country’s ambitious rail plans, will be faster than previously announced when it fully opens in 2013. The project was designed from the start for trains capable of 217 mph top speeds, but the government estimated total trip time of five hours on the 819 mile corridor, which would have meant average speeds of 164 mph on the whole line, a bit above typical for a corridor of this type. The country has now announced that its ambitions are even larger, and that trains will average over 200 mph to make the trip in less than four hours.

What’s significant about this announcement is that it means that trains will be moving at speeds higher than the 217 mph initially proposed for the major parts of the trip, making this by far the fastest conventional high-speed line in the world when it opens. The decrease in travel time from five hours to four also will allow trains to take a far higher percentage of the market share on China’s most important intercity link. Though three hours is typically seen as the time barrier under which trains can take travel share from airlines, a four hour trip on this corridor will make it a very popular choice for a link that already carries 10 percent of the country’s rail traffic. A trip between the cities today takes around 12 hours by rail.

The distance between Beijing and Shanghai is roughly equivalent to that between New York and Chicago.

China’s Railway Ministry sees its investment in new corridors as an essential way to avoid congestion as the country develops. China only has 1/50th of the number of airports as the U.S., but its high-speed railway network, measuring up to 7,000 miles by 2020, will be the longest in the world.

Beijing’s increased confidence in its capacity to deliver what amounts to the world’s most advanced high-speed corridor will be buoyed by a favorable stock market reaction, because the country is likely to list a holding company controlling the corridor on the stock market. Doing so would allow China to raise further funds for fast rail expansion, making this corridor only the first among many.

China High-Speed Rail Shanghai

China HSR Construction Speeds Up

Three more routes centering around Shanghai plannedShanghai Station

China, as described before, has embarked on the world’s largest high-speed rail program, with more than 10,000 km of passenger rail lines under construction to connect the nation’s largest and most important cities. The result will be truly expanded mobility for the country’s citizens and vastly reduced travel times.

Most important, perhaps, is the Beijing-Shanghai link, which will connect the country’s two largest metro regions, and whose construction began in April of 2008. According to People’s Daily, all of the tunnels along the 1,200 km long line will be completed this year – after little more than a year in construction. Trains along the corridor are now projected to travel at 220 mph, the same as along California’s planned high-speed line, and they will cover the distance in five hours.

Consider this: the distance between New York and Chicago is roughly the same as that between Beijing and Shanghai. Amtrak’s current best offer – along the Lake Shore Limited – makes the trip in nineteen hours. Imagine how many people would take the train if the same journey time were reduced by 75%…

Meanwhile, Shanghai Daily reports that the 2,066 km line between Shanghai and Kunming – a route not fully planned just a month ago, according to my research (at the time the project was expected to extend to Changsha only) – will be upgraded to high-speed service, with construction beginning later this year. The trains will run the route in 10 hours, versus 37 hours today. Another Amtrak comparison: that’s roughly equivalent to the distance between New York and New Orleans, a route that takes the Crescent 30 hours to complete.

Finally, construction on the proposed Shanghai-Hangzhou line, which is the first phase of the Shanghai-Hong Kong route, will begin in March, according to Xinhua. The 159 km journey will be covered in 38 minutes, versus more than an hour today. This short line will cost about 4.4 billion U.S. dollars to construct.

The U.S. stimulus bill, supposedly a “massive” investment in America’s infrastructure, will devote a maximum of $2 billion to high-speed rail, if the Senate version assumes priority. The House version of the bill included nothing for fast trains.

We’re falling further behind…

Image above: Shanghai South Rail Station, from Flickr user XXOM under CC License

Finance New York Shanghai

Mass Transit in the Stimulus; Shanghai's Rail Boom

The New York Daily News and Newsday report that New York State stands to gain billions of dollars in the upcoming stimulus bill, enough to not only iron out the enormous expected budget deficit that is coming as a result of decreasing tax revenues, but also enough to provide for the improvement of transportation in the Empire State. Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Jerry Nadler had a press conference yesterday in Manhattan to announce that they were busy negotiating with the incoming administration on the specific terms of the now $675-775 billion stimulus. And they suggest that transit capital projects will receive $20 billion of the total bill, with one-fifth of that amount, as per tradition, going to New York because of its huge mass transit ridership. This is very good news for New York City, whose fiscal crisis is threatening transit especially dramatically.

Keep in mind that the point of the stimulus bill will be designed for projects that can ramp up immediately, so long-term projects that will require several years to get through the design stages, will not be funded. In other words, we’re not going to see a sudden $20 billion to complete Phases II, III, and IV of the Second Avenue Subway. But that’s not to say that New York City doesn’t need the funds!

Here are the specific projects that Mr. Schumer and Mr. Nadler mentioned might be funded:

  • 1,500 new hybrid buses for the fleet
  • More renovated LIRR and subway stations, including those in Brooklyn that were recently delayed (as Second Avenue Sagas describes)
  • An extra station at 34th Street and 10th Avenue on the extension of the 7 Line to the Far West Side, a project cancelled by the city because of funding problems
  • A cash infusion to ensure the completion of the LIRR East Side Access Project
  • A renovation of the LIRR Atlantic Line Viaduct in Brooklyn
  • Completion of the Oculus at the Fulton Street Transit Center
  • Bus Rapid Transit in all five boroughs
  • Aluminum tracks, to “save electricity” as Metro reports; we’ve never heard of this one before but we’re looking into it

We’re very excited about the potential use of this money to allow the MTA to pay for improvements in its system even as it is wracked by scary budget problems. Here’s to the stimulus bill!

From Shanghai comes news that four new subway lines will open in the next year. Obviously, this will be another year of record acheivement on the part of that city’s transit planners, who are expanding their system at a rate only matched by… Beijing. The principal purpose of this large push to expand transit in Shanghai is the opening of the World Expo there in 2010, a massive event only rivaled by… the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Shanghai’s subway network is already extensive, and it will be as large as New York’s within five years, meaning that it will be the biggest in the world, even though its first line opened in 1995! Last year, three new lines opened, and by 2014, six additional lines are on track for completion. Pretty impressive.