Monday, May 19, 2014

Chinese subway madness!

A few years ago, China launched a new set of reform aiming to build a "sustainable" society.
Following these reforms, many "harmonious" Chinese cities launched ambitious projects to build subways.

Whenever you discuss with Chinese people, the vast majority praises this. They believe that subway is a good thing and part of the solution for the environment issues. I don't...
How much does it cost to build the subway? vs fast buses? vs tramway?
How much does it cost to operate the subway? vs fast buses? vs tramway?
What is the carbon footprint of the subway? vs fast buses? vs tramway?

Subways are way too expensive to build
Regardless of the costs, many Chinese cities decided to build huge subway network.
But the truth is that these projects are one more corner stone to bankrupcy. Local leaders of course don't care about this. For the time being they get the support of banks and loans from the central government. What happens next is no one concern...

Subways are way too expensive to maintain
Once a subway runs, it has high maintenance costs.

How can you pay for these costs? 
You can ask for a higher subway fee. Doing so poor Chinese people won't be able to take the subway! And if you can not travel, you can not work in China.
Does it mean subway should be used by only the richest and the Chinese middle class?
While the poorest should take the bus?

Changsha subway costs between 2 and 5rmb. Shanghai subway recently increased its fee. And with a clever propaganda campain Beijing subway offered to pay the subway fee with empty plastic bottle.
This is totally useless of course, since you can earn more money selling your empty plastic bottles to any waste collector!

You can pay part of the costs using the central government subsidies. But then how long can the central government pay?

Subways take too long to build
Building a whole city subway network takes years, decades. Who knows what will happen ten years from now.
Let me tell you about Changsha, where I live. The subway was supposed to open two years ago. It just opened last month... And when I say it just opened, I mean they opened one small subway line!

So why does it take so long to build a subway?
  • Building a subway is a technical achievement. The "bad" weather is most Chinese cities doesn't help. With heavy rain, cold and hot heat waves, it becomes a feast.
  • And of course there is the temptation of corruption... Only a few people are in charge of building the subway. Due to limited control, there is always a high temptation to ask for more and take money for yourself. 
This is the same story again and again in China. While building huge projects road networks, railways, real estate, bridges, damp... only a few people are in charge, one construction company, several local officials. As these projects are highly technical it is always difficult keep a control over corruption. 
In the end corruption could mean that the subway (bridge, railway, building...) might not be safe as the construction company cuts the costs on quality/ safety so as to take part of the money for itself!
Again if I take the example of Changsha subway, I have heard rumors that the subway was not safe. Again there are only rumors, but rumors always come frome somewhere...

There are some efficient alternatives to subway.
Unfortunately these alternatives are not considered at all by the decision makers!
There were probably no studies to consider alternatives in term of costs, pollution emission, efficiency!
  • Chinese cities could for instance build some tramway. Tramway can be built quickly. Tramway is way cheaper to build. And upkeep costs are low!

  • Why not also build some special fast public buses lanes. This is what Mexico city did.

So why do Chinese cities all want their subway?
You need to understand that China is centralized country. If Beijing says or does something, then you need to follow.
  • If you want to be a modern city you must build your subway and nothing else.
  • If some official from a local Chinese city decides to think out of the box and promote let's say some tramway, he opens himself to all criticisms. Whenever there would be a tiny problem, he would probably lose his job. In China working in a private company or in the administration, it is better to follow and not take any individual decision. Don't go against the flow.
  • There are many lobbies promoting the subway.

One China, one subway!
Chinese cities don't know how to do to develop some alternative to subway. 
If you compare the different subways from Chinese main cities, you will see that they are all the exact copy of the Hong-Kong subway!
Developping something else, such as the tramway, would require finding out some foreign company, developping a partnership, thinking a whole project. This is way too complicated for China...
Hong-Kong subway

Changsha subway

Beijing subway

I am not sure which mainland city subway was built first? Shenzhen subway or Shanghai subway or Beijing subway?
And then one after the other, Chinese cities implimented the same subway. None chose to try something else such as tramway or buses. They all copied the same model. I am not sure why? Maybe local leaders are wary if they do differently? Maybe there are too many interests at stake?
In the end Chinese cities are built under the same mold, a universal growth model mold: same subway, same train stations, similar airport, same buildings, same roads...

Why building subway is not a solution for the environmental issue: carbon emission, air pollution?
In term of pollution, the Chinese public think that subway will help reduce the car traffic and benefit the environment.
But in fact this is not true... 
  • Subway needs huge amount of electricity to operate. This electricity comes from coal fueled power plants and from nuclear power plants... 
  • It would be interesting to calculate the carbon footprint for one kilometer for one passenger who takes the subway vs one passenger who takes the bus in China. Unfortunately it is probable that there were no such studies before taking the decision to launch huge project to build the subway network in the next decade or so... 

  • I believe the people who take the subway are the one who can not afford a car. In fact if there is no subway they would take the bus or maybe stay at home? work local? 

Subway are part of the all car society growth model!
In fact there is a vast hypocrisy going on in China and in the whole world.
On one side, companies and politics talk about environment, global warming. 
But on the other side, they promote the all car society: build 6 lanes roads, promote cars (even electrical cars...).
The solution in China should be: small cities, decentralization, small local farms, few cars but bikes, electrical scooters, electrical buses, tramway... 
But in fact the growth models aims at huge cities. Once you have huge cities, people need to commute to work. They can not live in the city center. It is much too expensive. Then you need huge roads, cars for everyone, subways. Countryside are empty. People feed from GMO and pesticide from huge industrial farms...

All Chinese people want to buy a car and their appartment. 
All Chinese people when they have enough money buy their individual car (vs a scooter, vs taking the subway, vs taking the public bus...). This has to do with the "all car society growth model". 
As long as China promotes this system people will be selfish and look only at themselves. If they can they would rather use a car. They won't think about the consequence: pollution, global warming, oil, coal... 
And subway is not a solution to reduce the number of cars and our impact on the environment. Subway remains another clever lie promoting the "environment friendly development", another "sustainable society" propaganda tool (same as the electrical "coal fueled" car).

As a foreign face, I was "kindly" invited to the opening ceremony of Changsha subway. Needless to say I didn't go. I can not participate to the promotion of a "green, sustainable solution" that I believe reinforce the growth model and leads us to the destruction of our environment and planet.


  1. All Chinese want to buy two cars and two apartments....! one is never enough:)

    1. Yes many Chinese people want two appartments.
      Then it depends on your wealth.
      Some have 5, 6 appartments! It is just another investment for people.

  2. wow this is a great post! btw your whole blog is pretty awesome and informative.

    i don;t know about other cities but there has been some experimentation with trams in china. where i used to live in pu dong there is a thing called the zhangjiang tramline or something like that. it covers quite a small area but the thing is incredibly slow and was not convinient to use. the locals seem to use it though. in the city centers trams could be more useful.

    1. Thanks a lot, sorry for the late reply...

      These days I write less in the blog, only once a week.
      It is very time consuming and I would rather express myself in a short youtube video.
      I also think most viewers would rather watch a video than read.

      I think overall in most Chinese city the choice of building subway is positive. There are so many users that it is worth it even considering the huge intial investment/ co2 emission per passenger by km/ upkeep cost But I regret that there was no real study/ debate about it.

      You are right developing trams in the city center (vs cars) could be the next step?