China’s Investment in Subways Puts the U.S. to Shame

Seven of the world's 12 largest subway systems are now in China, and the country isn't about to stop building. Chart: Yonah Freemark
Seven of the world's 12 largest subway systems are now in China, and the country isn't about to stop building. Chart: Yonah Freemark

In America, we spend tens of billions of dollars on transportation infrastructure each year — mostly on roads that induce driving and traffic, increase carbon emissions, and claim a shocking number of lives. The nation’s political leadership is currently dithering about how to pay for a $200 billion infrastructure package that promises more business-as-usual spending. And the Trump White House is withholding funds for transit expansion projects across the country for ideological reasons.

Meanwhile, China is currently in the midst of the most ambitious subway construction boom the world has ever seen. The implications for the future of the country — as well as the global climate — are huge. Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic takes a look at the dizzying pace of rapid transit expansion in dozens of Chinese cities:

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.

Obviously, one reason China is able to pull off a massive infrastructure initiative like this is its top-down one-party dictatorship. But messy American democracy has managed to build large-scale public works before. Today, however, austerity and anti-urbanism define federal policy here, and high costs inhibit what cities can do on their own. In the “act of comparison” to China, Freemark says, “the illness of American planning is made apparent.”

More recommended reading today: The Urban Edge explains how millennial migration has reshaped downtown Phoenix and Houston, and why those sustaining that growth might be a challenge. And the Tampa Bay Times says bus rapid transit could be the answer to the region’s mobility problems — but not if it gets watered down.

  • Joe R.

    Actually, we should be investing a lot more in R&D simply to find better ways of doing things than we do now. As for building things now, I’m not saying we build nothing on the thoughts that some whiz-bang future technology will make it obsolete. That’s the kind of thinking of people who think autonomous cars and/or HyperLoop will make conventional rail obsolete. I just want us to get costs down to what they are everywhere else in the world. Is there any good reason the 2nd Avenue subway should cost $2.5 billion per mile when new subways in equally built-up areas are being built for $250 to $500 million per mile? And what about the new PABT slated to cost $10 billion? I’m tired of sticker shock for all these new projects. The original cost of the entire IRT subway system was $35 million in 1900 (equivalent to about $1 billion now). Nowadays $1 billion will get you about 2,000 feet of subway, at least in NYC. In some parts of the world it will get you 10 miles, which is at least reasonable.

  • Joe R.

    No, but get infrastructure costs under control. That will help our cities as we could build a lot more for the same amount of money.

  • Jokesta

    LOL.

    The cause of economic crisis is overpriced public transit and their associated overpriced labor.

    How about actually taxing windfall rents and capital gains from real estate? Same with taxing dividends, royalties, interest?

    How about curbing military spending and white collar welfare.

    And an extra LOL by citing driverless (in Lille and 1 Paris line) as an example of French fiscal responsibility. You do realize their PT employees are paid well and their systems are well staffed?

  • Jokesta

    Various right wing foumdations have been investing in Ayn Rand inspired economic think tanks. Their editorials seem to have influenced you.

    I don’t think ecological responsibility or society-wiDE well being are part of their ultimate goals.

  • Joe R.

    Sure, do all the other things you say but still we need to get infrastructure costs under control or we won’t even be able to replace what we have when it wears out. I’m the last person to say we shouldn’t tax the wealthy heavily but that doesn’t preclude spending that tax money frugally.

  • Joe R.

    Same reasoning applies to grossly overpriced highway projects like $500 million interchanges. The right wing thinks it’s fine to spend a fortune on highways but screams to the high heavens if a mass transit project costs more than $0.

  • Jokesta

    You know, cause ALL the subways and HSR networks in the world are a drain on the economy?

    You keep citing a utopian future. It isn’t here yet.

    If you’ve endured LA traffic, you’d see the appeal of the future Wilshire subway

  • Jokesta

    Lol. Right now potholes aren’t filled in and streetlights aren’t replaced.

    The whole austerity thing I’d something you should cheer on.

  • Jokesta

    Now you’re just disingenuous. We were talking about mass transit yet you interject the highway interchange.

    So Joe R; would you advocate the wholesale selloff of money-losing, high maintenance subway systems? (Basically all of them.) The public would no longer be on the financial hook.

  • Jokesta

    Or you could compare traffic conditions in Taipei pre and post Metro.

    Cause crossing the street in Taipei was/is never easy–Just part of being in a large, densely populated city. With your (non) logic, the Taipei subway is one more car-enabling money-waster.

    You have obviously NEVER been there. You most likely don’t know anyone fron there.

  • bolwerk

    I agree it’s Reagan/Friedman economics that is at fault here, but you could just as easily say Clinton/Bush/Obama. Not to mention Giuliani/Bloomberg/de Blasio. More precisely, it’s neoliberalism. At least subconsciously, neoliberal ideologies favor short term gains over long-term investment. That’s why debt is bad and shocking, and “easy” solutions are favored even if they cost more over the long run. Rail is typically the cheapest mode of mass transportation, but that’s only over the long term.

    For the most part, it’s societies with more democracy that get the more condign infrastructure. Continental parliamentary “democracies” have both better transit and bettter bike infrastructure than Britain or the U.S./

  • bolwerk

    Unless someone invents Star Trek-style beaming, the NYC Subway is not going to be obsolete. Even if it reaches the point where it’s the most expensive transportation option out there because of mounting administrative and replacement costs, and we’re still far from that point, there will still be no alternative except a shrunken, more impoverished city.

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