Op-Ed Contributors

Debate: Building subways

By Zhang Ming & Xu Yong  (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-01-24 07:54
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Environmentally friendly traffic solution or waste of public money?

Zhang Ming

Stop craze for underground lines

As a modern mode of transport, subways can solve many traffic problems in many Chinese cities. But that does not mean every Chinese city should start building one.

A city's administration has to undertake proper planning and weigh the pros and cons before deciding to build a subway or even introduce a new line to its existing metro network. Chinese cities, however, seem to be obsessed with the idea of constructing subways. They think subways are a panacea for all traffic ills. In fact, 33 cities have applied for the central government approval to build subways.

Many city administrations think a subway is a symbol of modernization. They are under the false belief that a metro adds to a city's image, a belief that reminds one of the 1990s when there was a crazy trend among cities to build plazas, which were more a waste of money than anything else.

The fact is that geographical conditions in many cities are not conducive to building and/or maintaining subways. The landscape and hydrological conditions of a city determine whether it can have a subway. It is difficult to build and operate a subway smoothly in mountainous areas like Chongqing municipality and some southern cities with high groundwater level. But surprisingly, several metro lines are already under construction in Chongqing.

If cities without suitable geographical conditions insist on building metros, they would be ignoring passenger safety. After all, subway lines are built several meters below the ground level, and even a minor glitch or accident could prove fatal for passengers.

Funds are another obstacle, especially if a medium-sized city is planning to build a metro. The average cost of building a subway is 300-700 million yuan ($45.6-106.3 million) per kilometer, which means a 10-km subway could cost up to 7 billion yuan ($1.06 billion). Even if the city manages to secure the funds to build one, it will be difficult for it to run and maintain it smoothly because of recurring costs. Take the Shenzhen subway for example. It has already suffered a loss of 1 billion yuan ($151.8 million), and will have a deficit of 22 billion yuan ($3.3 billion) from 2012 to 2016, according to reports.

Besides, medium-sized cities may not have enough commuters to sustain a metro. Even in many large cities, which have enough commuters, subways are running at a loss because of the very high cost of operation and maintenance, though a metro can bring some social benefits by easing traffic jams on roads. The deficit that metros in medium-sized cities run up can be reimbursed only by financial budgets, which means taxpayers will have to share the loss.

We have to remember that a subway is not necessarily a game of guaranteed benefits, either for passengers or city administrators, because metros in many cities have failed to solve traffic problems. Anyone who has visited Xizhimen interchange station of the Beijing subway network will tell you how long it takes to change trains because of the mad rush of commuters.

The main cause of the trend among cities to build subways seems to be the unreasonable decision-making process of local governments. In cities in China as well as abroad, municipal authorities play the leading role in subway construction, for only they have the funds to think about such projects. But in many countries, the public can have a say in such decisions, and a government can start such a project only after getting people's approval.

The situation in China is totally different; officials have the power to make unilateral decisions, without soliciting public opinion, which greatly increases the possibility of wrongdoing. Some local chiefs use a subway to enhance their performance, because such large-scale investment and construction means GDP growth.

Worse, some officials even abuse their power and get embroiled in corruption.

To end this crazy trend, city officials should be careful and transparent while planning subways. They should be made to seek public opinion before deciding to build a subway. They should also be made to solicit public opinion on how to spend their money and employ professionals for consultancy to at least avoid ridiculous decisions.

In cities that are not suitable for subways, local governments should concentrate on improving traffic management to better serve the people. After all, there is no universal solution, and that includes subways, to all traffic problems.

The author is a professor of political science at the Renmin University of China. This is an excerpt from his interview with China Daily's Zhang Zhouxiang.

Xue Yong

Chinese cities need more metros

"Traffic jam" is one of the key phrases to describing urban life in China. Browse any website and you will see numerous people complaining about being caught in traffic for hours. This makes me wonder why so many people are opposed to building subways, which are one of the most effective solutions to road traffic problems.

Reports say that in the Beijing subway network alone, passenger flow has exceeds 5 million a day, greatly easing the pressure on public transportation.

I agree with the view that many public construction projects are unnecessary. But I do not think subways should be counted among them.

As an underground mode of transport, the subway not only involves modern technology and precision in construction, but also involves the safety of thousands of passengers. So we should be extremely careful about building one. But that is only a reason for stricter supervision, not an excuse for abandoning this mode of transportation.

Most of the people who oppose subway construction do so because of its extremely high cost and the fear that it would run at a loss, which would increase the burden on taxpayers. Let's bear in mind, however, that a subway is not only a profit-making project; its most important function is public service.

Ever since the first metro line - Metropolitan Railway - was built in London in 1863, most of that city's lines have been running on deficit. But none of the great cities of the world can continue without a subway.

Of course, costs should be factored in, even in public services, but that does not make subways inferior. As is universally known, the most expensive resource in modern cities is land. Compared with land-consuming roads, subways can save a lot of costs by being underground.

Besides, costs should not be measured in terms of money alone. In many cities, vehicles running on roads guzzle gas and emit huge volumes of carbon dioxide and create noise pollution, causing great harm to residents. Shouldn't people's health be considered before rejecting the idea of building more subways?

Moreover, the high cost to build and maintain a subway yields enormous social benefits. Some senior experts have estimated that every 100 million yuan ($15.18 million) invested in subway construction generates GDP growth of 263 million yuan ($39.9 million) and creates up to 8,000 jobs.

Some other experts have classified cities into different categories, saying that only big cities with large populations need metros. The argument is apparently reasonable. But in reality, it is not. Take Boston where I live as an example. It is impossible to imagine life in the city without the subway even for a single day, and Boston has a population of only about 600,000, smaller than that of most medium-sized cities in China. Thus, if we consider a city's population as an important factor determining the need for a metro, it would be hard to find a single medium-sized city in China that does not deserve a subway.

Building a subway is also related to social justice. For the past several decades, urbanization in China has driven many low- and middle-income people to suburban areas and attracted nouveau riche to city centers because of high housing prices. That has caused great inconvenience to suburban residents. According to an official survey in 2010, people in 17 of the 50 main Chinese cities have to spend more than half an hour a day to reach their workplace. And they are not reimbursed even part of the money they spend to commute to and from work.

Local governments should provide inexpensive and convenient public transportation to people who have sacrificed so much for urbanization. The subway is that mode of transportation, and it will be the best and most eco-friendly for some decades to come.

An emerging concept in modern urban planning is "Copenhagenization", that is, encouraging more people to walk or use bicycles. Chinese cities should adopt this concept according to their ground conditions. Cities can also develop satellite townships, turning one city into small groups of cities. That will encourage more people to walk or take a bicycle to and from work, or use public transport. This can greatly ease traffic pressure on cities and at the same time maintain the advantages of large cities.

The only problem would be to link the townships to the center through railways, and that can be done through subways.

China lags behind developed countries when it comes to building subways. So the urgent mission is to invest more resources in subway projects and help the country catch up with the developed world in public transportation.

The author is a Chinese scholar based in the United States.

Debate: Building subways