Will festival travel get better?

By John Scales and Liu Zhi (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-02-01 07:56
Large Medium Small

Later this year, just before the fourth Thursday in November, about 45 million Americans will take a break from work and hit the roads, clogging highways, battling airlines and jamming trains. They will make more than 100 million trips; a lot for a country of just 300 million people. They will visit their families to enjoy the comfort of preparing and sharing a traditional Thanksgiving family meal together, followed by watching a game of American football while relaxing in an overstuffed sofa, a cold beer close at hand.

Ask any American and he/she will tell you it is a tradition, a national holiday, and more importantly, it is about spending time with family.

As you read this, in China, another mass movement is underway marking the Spring Festival holiday. An expected 2.8 billion trips will be made before the end of Spring Festival this year. This is on average one roundtrip for every one of China's 1.3 billion citizens. Of course some do not travel during Spring Festival, but most do and a significant number of them make more than two trips. This marks the greatest movement of people in history.

Will travel this year be easier? In some ways it will be worse. Because of China's rapid urbanization the mobile young have moved to cities, leaving parents and grandparents behind. Many others seek temporary employment in cities far away from their families. As with the American Thanksgiving, Spring Festival is traditionally a time of family. As such, over the last 10 years, Spring Festival trips have grown by about 5 percent a year.

But in many ways travel this year will be better. Long gone are the days when most Spring Festival travelers relied on slow over-crowded trains to reach their destination. Over the last two decades, China has launched the largest transport infrastructure building program in the history of the world. Since 1990, nearly 50 percent more railways have been built, 130 percent more roads added and 300 percent more route kilometers opened to domestic air carriers. This additional capacity has significantly reduced congestion, over and above the increase in demand.

Income growth has led to more travelers being able to afford to choose other modes of transport such as better buses, private cars, high-speed trains, and planes. In fact, it may surprise one to note that until recently nearly 90 percent of all Spring Festival travel had been by road, either private cars or buses. But the predominance of road travel is now changing. Travelers are returning to trains for mid-distance trips as new railways with better services open up.

Alternatively, they are choosing to fly for longer distances as air travel becomes accessible to more people. In addition, local governments have established alternate release schedules for students and laborers, thereby spreading the demand for travel over several weeks. The net effect is less overall congestion and better travel quality because travel is distributed across several modes of transport and over a longer period of time.

Could more be done? Yes, of course. Congestion during Spring Festival can be mitigated but not avoided. Building infrastructure is expensive and building for only peak holiday travel is wasteful. No one wants kilometers of underused railways and expressways and airplanes sitting idle during the rest of the year. Better travel comes with a cost which many travelers cannot afford. Ensuring that safe and affordable transport remains available for the poorest should not be forgotten.

The Ministry of Railways is considering changes to its pricing structure that will allow differentiated pricing to distribute demand based on the ability of a traveler to pay, which will, in part, ensure that newly added high-speed trains run at full capacity. But the Ministry of Railways also needs to ensure that cheaper local trains which run on slower tracks are still maintained.

Continued modernization of railway ticketing will reduce corruption and eliminate the black market of overpriced Spring Festival train tickets.

Changes by the government to the hukou (house registration) system, together with improving non-farm job opportunities in rural areas, would help bring families together, thus altogether avoiding the need for travel for many families.

Lessons learned from the 2008 winter storm are being adapted by China's transport ministries to help ensure that even if inclement weather hits during Spring Festival, the effects are mitigated. Also where improvement is certainly needed is in transport connectivity; what some call the first and last kilometers, ensuring that getting in and out of railway stations, bus terminals and airports and making transfers is seamless, so that the entire trip is faster and more comfortable.

But we all agree that traveling during holidays, be it Thanksgiving or Spring Festival, will never be easy. The good news is that this Spring Festival we are seeing more travel options, more people who can afford to choose, more comfortable and better managed services, and reduced overall travel times.

And less time spent traveling will mean more time spent with family.

The authors are transport specialists at the World Bank Office in Beijing. Supporting research was provided by Fang Wanli.

(China Daily 02/01/2011 page9)