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.