From The New York Times:
I didn't ride its subway when in Guangzhou last week. Not being too familiar with the city, we thought it was more trouble than it would've been worth.
GUANGZHOU, China — Chan Shao Zhang is in the race of his life.
After four decades of false starts, Mr. Chan, a 67-year-old engineer, is supervising an army of workers operating 60 gargantuan tunneling machines beneath this metropolis in southeastern China. They are building one of the world’s largest and most advanced subway systems.
The question is whether the burrowing machines can outrace China’s growing love affair with the automobile — car sales have soared ninefold since 2000. Or are a hundred Los Angeleses destined to bloom?
And even as Mr. Chan labors to bind Guangzhou together with an underground web of steel, the city is spreading out rapidly above ground, like a drop of ink on a paper towel.
The Guangzhou Metro is just part of a much broader surge in mass transit construction across China.
At least 15 cities are building subway lines and a dozen more are planning them. The pace of construction will only accelerate now that Beijing is pushing local and provincial governments to step up their infrastructure spending to offset lost revenue from slumping exports.“Nobody is building like they are,” said Shomik Mehndiratta, a World Bank specialist in urban transport. “The center of construction is really China.”
This NY Times story hits close to home for me because in 2011, one will be able to ride the subway currently under construction in Xi'an.
Here are some of the basic details on Xi'an's project:
Xi'an Subway is a metro system currently under construction to serve the city of Xi'an, the capitol of Shaanxi Province in the People's Republic of China. Line 2 is currently under construction and Line 1 will begin construction in 2009. Four other routes are also planned to start in 2013 and finish around 2020. When completed, the total system will span 251.8 kilometers (157 miles).So eventually, Xi'an's system is going to be a pretty sizable one. At the moment, the construction is hugely inconvenient. Several of Xi'an's busiest streets and intersections are unusable. But the project should, hopefully, make the city a better place in a few years.
Some of the issues brought up in the article I linked to on Guangzhou's subway also will be problems for Xi'an though. Specifically, Xi'an's rapidly expanding car culture and sprawling suburbs will surely test the effectiveness of the proposed subway.
Xi'an is a very convenient place to own a car. It's not particularly dense and there are plenty of places one can park a car. The things the article mentioned that a place like New York City does - implementing heavy tolls and expensive parking - aren't currently found in Xi'an. Your average Xi'an resident can't afford a car, but scores of people every day are realizing the dream of purchasing an automobile.
The economic planner of the subway in Guangzhou is a nice example of this car problem and how it might underut the effectiveness of Chinese subways. Chen Haotian is responsible for helping build one of the largest mass transit systems in the world, yet is in love with his new car. As he said about his automobile:
“On my salary, the maintenance costs are a pressure,” he said. “But it gives me great pleasure and the feeling of a higher standard of living.”The other issue is suburban flight. Xi'an's city limit is moving outward in every direction. As a friend of mine put it the other day, "If you go out south of the city towards the mountains, it is beginning to resemble a concrete hell." Indeed, as Xi'an grows, it's expansion outwards is getting pretty extreme.
As is the case in American suburbia, rich people who have the means to buy a car probably will. They also aren't interested in riding public transportation.
How in love the average Chinese gets with cars and living outside of the city in suburbia are going to be the things that determine how useful these massive subway projects in Xi'an and the rest of China eventually become.