China’s Highway Network Now Larger than U.S. Interstate System

Most of the media coverage of China’s infrastructure has focused on the country’s aggressive high-speed rail expansion plans. However, it is in highways where China is making the biggest news. As first noted by Wendell Cox at newgeography, (according to the Beijing Review,) China’s highway network surpassed the length of the U.S. network in 2011.

In 2011, China added 11,000 kilometers (6,835 miles) of expressway to its national system. At 52,800 miles, China’s intercity freeway system is longer than the 46,720 miles in the U.S. Interstate system. There are a couple caveats with the data. In China some urban expressways are not included in the official numbers. The U.S. also has many non-interstate expressways. Regardless, if China’s total limited access highway expressway network is not already longer than the U.S. system, it will be by the end of this year.

While much has been made of China’s high-speed rail problems, see here, here, here, here, here and here, China is investing in highways as much as it is investing in rail. What some in the U.S. miss is that China realizes it needs to invest in all modes. Comparing China to the U.S. is a bad idea because the U.S. has a developed highway network, a comprehensive freight rail network and an expansive aviation network.

However, the U.S. can take one lesson from China. Parts of the U.S. including the south and the west need more highways. When the interstate system was envisioned places like Las Vegas and Phoenix were much smaller in size. Las Vegas grew 37 percent and Phoenix 33 percent just between 2000-2009. While that growth has slowed considerably, both cities will start growing again when the recession ends. The U.S. needs to build several new interstate links. At the same time, China has four times as many people as the U.S. We do not want to start building highways to nowhere so we can brag that we have the longest highway network. But targeting investments in growing corridors with strong benefit to cost ratios is the right move. Making selective improvements to our highway network is the lesson that we should be learning from China.