China finds metros a boon as cities boom


By Daniel Bardsley

It was at a ceremony 45 years ago that construction of the Beijing Subway began.

Labourers work on part of the Xi’an subway system in China. It will eventually have six lines. Nelson Ching / Bloomberg
Labourers work on part of the Xi’an subway system in China. It will eventually have six lines. Nelson Ching / Bloomberg

Among those in attendance at the 1965 gathering was Deng Xiaoping, who would soon fall out of favour during the Cultural Revolution, before being rehabilitated and, after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, becoming China’s supreme leader.

It is perhaps appropriate that the man often credited with starting China’s economic transformation was there to see the country’s first embrace of a transport system that is set to become all the more important in this decade.

With the world’s most populous nation urbanising at breakneck speed – the number of city dwellers, currently at least 600 million, is expected to reach 900 million over the next two decades – the need for mass transit is growing.

Just as Dubai launched the Dubai Metro urban rail system last year, and Abu Dhabi plans to have its own urban train network from 2016, so China has embarked on a metro building project almost as frenzied as the urbanisation that has made it necessary.

Over the next five years, the country will triple its subway network from 940km to 3,000km, an official from the national development and reform commission (NDRC) revealed at a conference this year. In addition to the dozen metro systems already operating in 11 cities, the NDRC said a further 25 were planned at a cost of more than 1 trillion yuan (Dh540 billion). Also, some of the existing metros are being extended.

The rise of urban rail parallels the immense growth in intercity rail services, including high-speed rail, and some of the spending has been brought forward as part of the economic stimulus programme launched to counter the domestic effects of the global economic slowdown. China’s multiple manufacturers of rolling stock, along with countless other equipment suppliers, are certainly likely to reap a rich reward from the growth in the metro systems.

Many of the lines are already under construction in cities such as the ancient capital of Xi’an, where a total of six lines are ultimately envisaged.

But creating ever more metros has not been without hurdles. Despite what would appear to be a dire need for them, many of China’s underground networks have struggled to turn a profit, paralleling the situation with the intercity high-speed rail systems, which have also found it hard to avoid losses. The Shenzhen Metro, for example, is reportedly predicted to lose 22bn yuan between 2012 and 2016, with ticket prices, set low to encourage passengers to use the service, averaging less than half of what is needed to break even.

Dr Bala Ramasamy, a professor of economics at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, says, however, that such projects should be considered from “a long-term perspective”, as the wider economic benefits of metro lines are likely to be significant. Not only do they create direct financial returns by stimulating demand for equipment, but they also promote the development of cities by aiding the growth of “satellite towns.

Dr Ramasamy cites Pudong, one of the most dramatically built-up areas of Shanghai, as having developed “as a result of the metro lines and other infrastructure that allows the city to stretch into a larger area”. And that is even without considering the “implicit benefits” metros bring by reducing congestion on the roads.

Nonetheless, the fact that subway operators have to charge low, loss-making fares to attract customers – Beijing slashed the price of a ticket to a flat fee of 2 yuan in 2007 – indicates the authorities are having to work hard to coax people out of their cars.

It is perhaps not surprising they have to make such efforts, because several forces in China are running counter to the aim of getting commuters to use the metros. First, the sprawling urban development of many Chinese cities, with large suburbs being built on the outskirts, has been seen as encouraging vehicle use, with metro systems tending instead to be best suited to more tightly packed cities. In addition, government incentives have caused car sales in China to grow dramatically, with the country having last year overtaken the US as the world’s largest car market.

And there appears to be a reluctance to price people out of their cars with measures such as congestion charging, even though these have proved effective in cities such as Singapore and London. Academics are among those sceptical of such efforts.

“If you can use other incentives to use public transport, that’s much better than penalising people for driving,” says Dr Barbara Siu, an urban transport planning specialist in the department of civil and structural engineering at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

“[But] we certainly need to encourage more people to use public transport. We have a huge population.”

The key, Dr Siu says, is to use incentives that lead people to believe that by taking public transport instead of driving they are not making themselves worse off.

Better connections between urban rail systems and buses – Dubai ensured these were in place to coincide with the launch of the metro – are particularly useful, she says.

“These are the connections that make metro systems more flexible.”

In China in particular, given the unprecedented speed of urbanisation and city development, the planners undoubtedly face an uphill task, even if, as Dr Siu says, they have been doing “quite well” in the circumstances. The huge increase in the number of metro systems is unlikely to prove to be a magic wand in eradicating congestion because, as Dr Hong Kam Lo, a public transport and traffic researcher at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, puts it: “It’s not like you can build it and you can solve the problem.

“It’s not [a case of] you build it and people will come.”