The Real Lessons from Beijing’s Investment in Subways

A recent story in the Toronto Star exemplifies what I believe is a generally simplistic and shallow approach by Western journalists to understanding China’s investment in transportation infrastructure. The American public and policymakers suffer as a result.

The Star column starts off with the laudatory headline: “Beijing Tackles Transit, With Stunning Results.”

Interesting. What are the “results”? Beijing has opened up five new subway lines, another 60 miles of fixed guideway. That’s certainly an important infrasturcture spending accomplishment, but does it qualify as a transportation planning success as the columnist implies? The implication from the article is that the opening of the subway lines is proof in and of itself of successful transport policy.

The columnist goes on to write positively about how the subway represents Beijing’s pro-active approach to the city’s nightmarish traffic congestion and how much faster (and presumably more efficiently) projects get done in China. The writer in the Star’s Asia Bureau then goes on to compare Beijing’s achievement to Toronto laggard policies:

“There’s nothing tentative about Beijing’s approach.

“Faced with serious gridlock — just like Toronto, but on a monumental scale — Beijing has decided to move aggressively. There is a sudden sense of urgency about public transport here.

“The new lines, with a price tag of $9.4 billion, were not supposed to be completed until 2012. But with a transportation crisis on their hands, transit authorities moved that date forward.

“They wanted these feeders from the suburbs completed so that they can turn their attention to building more lines in the city centre, where they’re most crucially needed.

“With last week’s new additions, the subway network grew to 336 kilometres from 228 overnight. At the same time, a single fare costs 30 cents — a tenth of the cost of a trip on the TTC.

“And there’s more expansion in the works, the Beijing Mass Transit Railway Operation Corp. says. The network will grow to more than 700 kilometres — 10 times that of Toronto’s current system — by 2020.”

What I find most objectionable about this column is the complete lack of context for the comparison. Nowhere, for example, does he mention that Beijing’s urban population of nearly 14 million (and steadily growing toward 20 million) might have fundamentally different transportation needs than Toronto (population 6 million), or that Beijing’s per capita income (and mobility) is about one quarter of Toronto’s, or that the initial subway line opened in 1971, added just two more lines in the subsequent two decades, and really didn’t experience rapid development until after 2001. (Notably, this slow beginnig was under the same authoritarian government.)

Nor does the article mention that an important source of congestion is the widespread use of bicycles which make up 23 percent of travel in the city. The primary source of new transit riders are former bicycle riders, walkers (20 percent of travel), and bus riders, not commuters shifting from their autombiles. Whether the subway is an effective substitute for the automobile is still a very open question. (Along these lines, Beijing transportation planners are seriously considering an underground expressway network that would include four north-south roads and two east-west roads.) While planners hope to dramatically increase public transit from its current level to fifty percent, this is a very ambitious goal. Even so, most of this growth will not come from existing automobile users.

Indeed, the opening of these subway lines may, in fact, be an example of how poorly the Chinese have planned their transportation infrastructure. Cities of the size and scale of Beijing–with miles of Manhattan-style residential and commercial office towers–require a complex, layered multimodal transportation network. Beijing was arguably at the point this kind of multimodal system was needed decades ago and is now really playing catch up. Beijing was already bigger than Toronto in 1960 when its population exceeded 7 million.

While getting subway lines online quickly is an accomplishment, we shouldn’t confuse that with either efficiency, foresight, or effectiveness, and appropriateness for North American cities.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.

Staley is the author of several books, most recently co-authoring Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). Texas Gov. Rick Perry aid Staley and Moore "get it right" and world bank urban planner Alain Bartaud called it "a must read for urban managers of large cities in the United States and around the world."

He is also co-author, with Ted Balaker, of The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It (Rowman and Littlefield, September, 2006). Author Joel Kotkin said, "The Road More Traveled should be required reading not only for planners and their students, but anyone who loves cities and wants them to thrive as real places, not merely as museums, in the 21st Century." Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said, "Balaker and Staley clearly debunk the myth that there is nothing we can do about congestion."

Staley's previous book, Smarter Growth: Market-based Strategies for Land-use Planning in the 21st Century (Greenwood Press, 2001), was called the "most thorough challenge yet to regional land-use plans" by Planning magazine.

In addition to these books, he is the author of Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities (Transaction Publishers, 1992) and Planning Rules and Urban Economic Performance: The Case of Hong Kong (Chinese University Press, 1994).

His more than 100 professional articles, studies, and reports have appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Investor's Business Daily, Journal of the American Planning Association, Planning magazine, Reason magazine, National Review and many others.

Staley's approach to urban development, transportation and public policy blends more than 20 years of experience as an economic development consultant, academic researcher, urban policy analyst, and community leader.

Staley is a former chair for his local planning board in his hometown of Bellbrook, Ohio. He is also a former member of its Board of Zoning Appeals and Property Review Commission, vice chair of his local park district's open space master plan committee, and chair of its Charter Review Commission.

Staley received his B.A. in Economics and Public Policy from Colby College, M.S. in Social and Applied Economics from Wright State University, and Ph.D. in Public Administration, with concentrations in urban planning and public finance from Ohio State University.