The world’s largest human migration is well underway throughout China as the Lunar New Year holiday quickly approaches. Throngs of people queue at train stations, jostling for tickets home. They turn the gleaming citadels of polished marble dark with bags. By some estimates, Shanghai’s Hongqiao Railway Station received 165,800 people this past Sunday alone. Others steel themselves for an arduous bus ride home, sleeping next to a stranger for upwards of 48 hours.
Throughout all of this deafening madness, the system successfully accomplishes what it is intended to. It moves the citizens of the world’s most populous country from point A to point B. All told, the process is rather streamlined and by Chinese standards quite efficient. In major world cities, including my beloved New York City, snowstorms often grind the public transportation systems to a halt. For the Chinese New Year no such option is available. The system must work.
This is not just true for the holiday season. China’s vast transportation infrastructure connects every corner of the country. High-speed railways are making even the furthest reaches accessible. The 1,000 kilometer trip from Beijing to Shanghai can now be made in less than 5 hours. Shanghai’s MagLev train whisks passengers arriving from the Pudong International Airport through the city at 400 kilometers an hour. Highways and byways, ring roads and toll roads, bridges and tunnels are connecting 1.6 billion people.
In every city there are large-scale infrastructure improvement projects. A major push by the central government is creating public transportation systems that are accessible, reliable and user-friendly. Shanghai’s subway system already dwarfs New York City’s in length of track and passenger load. By 2020, the city plans to triple the length of track with an additional 10 lines. On a recent trip to Chengdu the activity underground was no less impressive. For those enduring the traffic jams above ground, a polite set of signs remind us that “…we suffer inconvenience today for a much easier tomorrow.”
The timing could not be better. As China’s population grows wealthier, more and more automobiles are taking to the roads. Beijing has already reached a saturation point with cars, which in my opinion is a blessing in disguise. This has been the catalyst for rapid change on a national scale to decrease use of vehicles and increase the use of public transport. The reality is that China will not be able to get rid of automobiles altogether. The burgeoning middle class want their fancy BMWs and Ferraris. What the Government is able to offer is a counter to offset the impact of cars on both people and the environment. We have seen how public transportation dramatically reduces the carbon output of a city. New York City, by example, has one of the lowest carbon footprints in the United States although it is the most populous city in the country. This is due in large part to its extensive network of subways and trains. It will be interesting to see if China’s cities follow the same path.