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China's Public Transport System Leaves U.S. in Slow Lane

Nation poised for more growth amid continuing development of urban subways, high-speed intercity railways and freight networks

Mark Melnicoe
    May 13, 2018 4:25 AM  PT
China's Public Transport System Leaves U.S. in Slow Lane

At a time that China's ascent to catch the U.S. economically is becoming increasingly clear, one highly visible and important sector is already light years ahead—public transportation.

Those who travel to China as tourists may not notice if they are being led by bus or minivan through the daily traffic jams choking Beijing and Shanghai.

 But to live and work in China is to enjoy the benefits of amazingly efficient and cheap subway systems and high-speed rail that carry hundreds of millions of people every year. This stands in stark contrast to a badly off-track U.S., where cars are a virtual necessity for a job and general mobility.

Many people don't realize that the world's longest subway system is not in New York or London; it's in Shanghai, with its 15 lines totaling 418 miles. It gets more than 8 million riders per day. Beijing gets more on its slightly shorter system (a mere 378 miles and second place globally).

Rides within the central city of both cities cost 3 yuan (less than 50 cents), and passengers can get to within walking distance of almost anywhere. That's because Shanghai has 393 stations; Beijing has 370. But these two megacities are not alone. Some 25 cities in China now boast subway systems, most of them with multiple lines. They are planned in numerous other cities over the next five years.


Shanghai Subway Station

During the four years I spent working in Shanghai, never did I miss driving.

Why should I? It was great to learn of an event or have someone to meet, look up the address and then find it on an online map that included the Metro system. I could easily see which subway station was closest and plot a course to get there, usually with minimal line changes. This was generally faster and cheaper than taking a taxi. I lived in three different apartments in Shanghai and the nearest Metro station was never more than an eight-minute walk.

China is not ignoring its urban residents who prefer to stay above ground. The modern metropolis of Shenzhen, bordering Hong Kong, has a fleet of 16,000 buses - all of them running on batteries. The city of 12 million recently became the first in the world to run its entire bus fleet on electricity. And it's not just Shenzhen. According to Bloomberg, of the 385,000 fully electric buses around the world, 99 percent of them are in China.

The intercity high-speed rail system in China also is a marvel. I stopped flying to Beijing when I realized I could get there just as fast on the train – going 818 miles in 4 1/2 hours. While it's only a two-hour flight between two of the world's biggest cities, taking the time to go to the airport, go through security lines and then sweat out a possible flight delay just wasn't worth it.

There are now 16,000 miles of electrified, high-speed railway track crisscrossing the country, where trains can go 220 mph. Travel time from Shanghai to the central city of Xi'an, home of the famed terracotta warriors, was cut to six hours last year – less than half the time it took previously.

China now accounts for about two-thirds of the world's high-speed rail. Last year, 1.7 billion trips were taken on these trains. The entire high-speed rail system has been built over the last decade by the state-owned CRRC Corp. Every day, tens of thousands of passengers take subways into cavernous, modern railway stations that resemble airport terminals in scope.

While all of this is highly beneficial to the Chinese people, it's also good for the country's economic future. Fast, reliable, clean transportation facilitates China's continued rapid development.

Under President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative, China is spending hundreds of billions of dollars to build a modern system of rail lines, expressways, ports and other facilities to re-establish the ancient Silk Road, which connected western China to Europe and the Middle East. The new Maritime Silk Road will include more ports at the historic trading city of Guangzhou, where ships will carry goods between China and southern Asia and Africa. The land portion will facilitate movement of more products between China and Europe via Russia and central Asian countries.

This connectivity with other nations also benefits the internal movement of goods around China, of course. China is investing in the Yangtze River Economic Belt, spending more billions to modernize shipping and other transport along the world's third-longest river, where close to half a billion people live.

On top of this, China has constructed several new multibillion-dollar airports during the last decade. The world's largest airport will open outside Beijing, at a cost of $12 billion, in 2020. New airports also are coming to Chengdu, Qingdao, Xiamen, and Dalian.

All told, China spent $1.8 trillion during the 2011-15 period for transportation infrastructure, according to government figures. That spending is continuing apace, although there are some hiccups. The central government recently set out guidelines for local governments after finding "a range of problems such as poor locations miles away from city centers," according to the Caixin news portal.

So it is ordering more discipline at the local level.

This is not an uncommon problem in China because local officials sometimes defy logic in trying to meet economic targets set by Beijing. In this case, they know they will create demand for more housing and other development if they extend rail lines. And housing is how local governments get a big portion of their revenues.

At the end of the day, the high-speed rail system is helping transform the lives of ordinary Chinese people, facilitating ease of travel all over the sprawling country in a way most of them couldn't have fathomed just a few years ago.

It's also setting up China for more growth.

"By leveraging modern transport and logistics systems, the country can support its new economic growth model, led by domestic consumption and urbanization," the World Bank said in a report.

The government says the investment already has "boosted the development of relevant industries such as automobiles, shipping, metallurgy, logistics, e-commerce, tourism and real estate, and created many jobs."

Compare that to what's going on here. President Trump promised a $1 trillion infrastructure program as president, correctly citing the need to rebuild America's highways, bridges, airports, rail lines and other facilities that are many decades old. But his budgetary proposal falls vastly short – calling for only $200 billion. Few economists believe the private sector will pick up the rest, as the White House claims.

The U.S. does not seem destined to catch up to China anytime in the next 20 years when it comes to transportation. In that time, China will quite likely overtake the U.S. to become the world's largest economy.