Workers cut rail tracks at the construction site of Changzhou's first subway line, set to open in 2019. Reuters

More than 20 urban transit systems and over 100 lines were built in just the last 10 years, but the government now wants cities to slow down.

China’s first ever subway runs through the heart of Beijing. Proposed in 1953 as a way to ferry soldiers from their barracks on the outskirts to the city center, the 13-mile, 16-station metro line opened in 1969 after years of debate, including one over the decision to ultimately knock down the 700-year-old Dadu City Wall that once protected the emperor of the Yuan Dynasty.

Beijing’s Line 1 didn’t opened to the public until the 1980s. And in the years that followed its initial run, subway expansion across China was a slow-moving process compared to the country’s rapid rate of urbanization. The second subway system, in the northeastern city of Tianjin, wouldn’t debut until 1984—15 years after the initial opening of Line 1. (Hong Kong’s opened in 1979, 18 years before the end of British rule.)

Things have certainly changed since. When China won the bid in 2001 to host the 2008 Olympic Games, stories about its notorious urban transportation and air pollution were catapulted into the international spotlight. It was not uncommon for the air quality index to surpass 200 PM2.5—deemed too dangerous for outdoor exertion—for seven or nine days at a time, according to analysis by Greenpeace.

Chinese officials promised to clean up the air by the opening ceremony, and poured nearly $20 billion into the efforts. They ordered polluting factories to curb emissions, restricted the use of private cars, and boosted Beijing’s subway capacity by adding three lines, bringing the total to eight. Though the effects proved only to be short-lived—thick smog would blanket the city again after the games ended and car restrictions were loosened—the country continues to advance its urban rail system at an astonishing pace, from tramways and monorails to underground subways.

Combined, these systems span more than 3,100 miles across the country, with subways accounting for over three-quarters of its rail lines, according to national statistics. More than 20 systems and over 100 lines have been built in just the last 10 years. China’s largest cities have seen their own networks expand exponentially. Beijing now has 22 lines covering nearly 380 miles and serving some 10 million passengers each day. Shanghai’s metro, which opened in 1993, currently holds the title of being the longest in the world, running 398 miles in total. Both will continue to grow.

From 2010 to 2015, China built roughly 232 miles of subway lines each year, investing $189 billion into those projects. Today, the country has subways in 31 cities, with a total of 133 lines covering some 2,700 miles.

It’s a remarkable commitment, and one that, as transit blogger Yonah Freemark writes, puts the U.S.’s infrastructure plans to shame. But as the state news agency China Daily notes, the country is hardly done. There are at least another 60 miles of metro under construction in 23 cities, and dozens more systems in either the proposal or planning stages. Altogether, the country’s rapid transit expansion could span some 4,000 miles by 2020, with national investment reaching $300 billion. That’s on top of the massive high-speed railway network that will eventually cover 23,600 miles across the mainland and into Hong Kong.

At the end of 2017, China’s top economic body, the National Development Reform Commission, announced plans to relax the requirements needed for local governments to pursue subway projects. That includes lowering the minimum population from 3 million to 1.5 million, which means more third- and even fourth-tier cities can expect to put in their own proposals. In a country where hundreds of new cities have cropped up only to become ghost towns while established metropolises face overcrowded roads and increasingly unaffordable housing, the implications could be huge.

As journalist Wade Shepard writes in his book, Ghost Cities of China: “The role that China’s metro system plays in the social and economic development of its new towns and cities cannot be underestimated.” There are the obvious benefits: Construction on its own is a boon for manufacturers and promises employment opportunities. The ease of travel should help alleviate traffic congestion and boost economic productivity. That should promote growth, which would also benefit bigger cities nearby. By encouraging local migrants to settle on the outskirts, Shepard writes, the government hopes to ease pressure in major city centers while still giving businesses access to cheap labor via a well-connected transit system.

This is part of what China is betting on with so-called satellite cities like Xiongan, which is will be connected to Beijing via four new metro lines on the capital city’s subway. But with scare details, as CityLab has previously reported, Xiongan will either provide Beijing that much needed relief, or those upcoming subway lines will lead to yet another empty city. Or, it could end up like the now infamous Caojiawan station built in the barren suburbs outside Chongqing, China.

An exit of a subway station currently in operation, is seen in a sparsely populated area in Chongqing, China. (Reuters)

Projects like the Caojiawan station are perhaps why relaxing requirements won’t amount to the kind of free-for-all that small-town officials are hoping for. At the same time that China wants to advance the economy, rising national debt—which has surpassed 250 percent of the country’s GDP—means the government is becoming wary of risky subway developments in financially weak cities.

“Expanding to small cities is one way China is taking advantage of this big capacity and know-how,” said Dario Hidalgo, the director of transport at the World Resource Institute. “What needs to be taken care of now is how these will be sustainable in the future. Even if the systems [in some cities] are smaller than in other parts of the world, it is still significant investment.”

It can cost between 500 million and 1.3 billion yuan (between $80 million and $200 million) to build just one kilometer of track. That’s considerably cheaper than, say, the billion-dollar price tag in New York City and the $230-million or more it takes in some European cities, but it is still a hefty cost for smaller Chinese cities. The national government provides subsidies, as much as 80 percent of the cost is funded through debt, according to a 2017 report by WRI. Part of the problem is that metro systems are rarely profitable, which can put local governments further into debt. Even China’s busiest subway, in Beijing, lost $558 million in 2013, in part due to underpriced tickets that cost a third of what the city needed to charge in order to break even with construction costs.

So in an effort to clamp down on its debt, China is targeting what it considers wasteful construction binges. Subway developments have already seen their first casualties, with work on two $4-billion metro construction projects in Inner Mongolia halted last November. The NDRC also plans to “raise the bar” for approving future proposals, giving extra scrutiny to the economical and fiscal status of each city.

It’s the kind of precaution that transit experts at WRI, like Hidalgo, recommend. “In China, they are selecting metro as a default for mass transit,” he said, and selecting “blindly” which cities can move forward with their project. Instead, Hidalgo said each city should conduct an analysis on alternative modes of mass transit, like bus rapid transit.

“They can use some of their own experiences because China does have BRT corridors that are of good quality and can be used as examples in their planning process,” he said. While buses lack the kind of popular appeal that shiny new trains have, BRT has been enjoying its own boom, with 1,859 miles built as of 2015. They operate in big cities like Guangzhou (population: 8 million) and smaller ones like Zhoushan, in eastern China, with fewer than a million people.

Guangzhou’s in particular has been hailed by transit experts as a glowing example for what BRTs can do for Chinese cities. The 14-mile corridor serves some 800,000 passengers each day, and receives praise for its meticulous design that integrates the city’s existing metro system and various bike-share options.

A 2011 report by Institute of Transportation Development Policy, which consulted Guangzhou officials on the project, credits the BRT for making bus and car trips 29 and 20 percent faster, respectively. That translates to 52 million hours saved and $25 million in economic value. It also gets credit for replacing 30,000 auto trips each day in its first year, admittedly a small number given the city’s population but nonetheless a shift in the right direction. The report also projected that the BRT system will reduce carbon emissions by 86,000 tons within the first 10 years.

That’s not to say that Guangzhou’s BRT system is more valuable than its metro: the city’s huge population renders both indispensable. What is noteworthy, though, is that the efficiencies of BRT come at an initial cost of $4.4 million per kilometer—about a tenth of what it cost Guangzhou to build its subway. That undoubtedly is a more feasible price tag for smaller cities.

If officials of these small towns conducted more thorough alternative analyses, Hidalgo said, some may have foreseen the benefits in investing the money used to build those one- or two-line subways into extensive BRT systems. “There are 20 cities that have BRT but most of the systems are very low-capacity,” he told CityLab. (No need for gimmicks like “trackless train” or doomed straddling bus that’s really a train.)

In fact, with cities like Shenzhen switching over to an entirely electric bus fleet, and Chinese tech giants like Baidu investing in driverless buses, the future of China’s public transit lies as much in its buses as it does in its rail networks. The sobering news is that neither BRT or metro alone will significantly reduce congestion. As the researchers behind a 2014 study on transportation efficiency—using Guangzhou as a case study—determined, transportation efficiency invites more traffic.

“Total number of cars will always maintain the rising trend due to population increase and economic development,” determined Yang Yang, Peitong Zhang, and Shaoquan Ni in their article for Transportation Research Procedia. “Unexpectedly, the larger the construction scale, the more the number of cars, which means that urban rail transit, could not reduce total number of cars. This is due to the fact that urban rail transit will promote population increase and economic development, and further stimulate car ownerships,” they conclude.

But with China charging head first into the leadership spot for sustainability, both types of transit will play vital roles in revolutionizing the way people move around.

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