Beyond the Bay

At Least Beijing Can Do It

The Overhead Wire and the Live from the Third Rail blogs report the news that urban planners in Beijing have approved planning permission for six new subway lines that will begin construction by the end of the year, to be completed in 2012. From China View:

Beijing SubwayThe six new lines – the No. 6, 8 and 9 lines, the second phase of the No. 10 line, and the Yizhuang and Daxing lines, have a total length of 152 kilometers, according to the Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Planning. They will be completed in 2012.

Beijing currently has five subway lines in operation, with a total length of 142 kilometers.

“The city aims to raise the proportion of citizens choosing public transport from the current 30 percent to 45 percent by 2015, and the subway passenger volume will increase to eight million a day from the current 2.2 million,” said the commission’s Zhou Nansen.

In other words, Beijing will not only more than double the size of its subway system, but it will also execute a huge increase in transit share: all in just five years.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, we spent several years planning and constructing the T-Third, a single surface rail line, only five miles long, that initially ended up failing even the most basic of expectations. Months later, it is not clear that the T is superior to the bus service it replaced. If all moves according to schedule, within a decade, the T-Third will be extended north into Chinatown via the Central Subway project, in a mere 1.7-mile subway extension. With respect to construction timeline, track mileage, and number of stations, the subway extensions planned in Beijing are orders of magnitude more impressive than what we can pull off in San Francisco.

San Francisco and Beijing are by no means comparable in terms of population — but, just for the sake of argument, San Francisco is so compact that the construction of six additional subway lines would constitute a largely complete rapid transit network for the city. By Bay Area standards, I would be thrilled if we managed to build one new urban BART line by 2050, but who knows if I’ll still be around to see it. Even New York City — where you might think that sardine-can crush loads on the Lexington Avenue IRT provide more than enough motivation to have long ago completed an additional subway line running underneath the Upper East Side — even there, the “progress” made on the Second Avenue subway over the past several decades has been a joke.

The breakneck speed of the Beijing subway construction is in part due to the desire to complete a few new lines before the 2008 Olympics. Unfortunately, this haste has led to critical lapses. This past spring, a tunnel collapsed, and the death of six construction workers in the tunnel was unsuccessfully covered up. Of course, I am not advocating the sacrifice of a thorough design and review process (or basic security precautions during construction) just for the sake of speed. Still, the fact that other countries furnish the political and financial support that allow them to construct substantial subway lines quickly — while here in the United States, we spend years at a standstill, spending much more time to produce far less impressive results — is a continual source of frustration. Surely we can find a reasonable middle ground.

Image of Beijing subway courtesy David Beatus.



7 thoughts on “At Least Beijing Can Do It

  1. Five years for a project that size is amazing. It makes me wonder if they have anything else going in their favor – are they digging through an already established urban locale? I know in NY the level of cr*p going on under the streets necessitates very slow, careful progress.

    Posted by Doug | 22 October 2007, 6:08 am
  2. I’m not extremely familiar with the factors at play in Beijing, and I’ve never been there or had the chance to ride their subway — but, a couple guesses. One reason why transit infrastructure improvement in the U.S. takes so long is because it takes so long to find funding and put together enough small pieces of money from many different sources — from local to federal — in order to have enough to finish the project, and each of those pieces of funding is associated with some grant process. Beijing just seems to have made this a priority — not only is there a lot of government money, but also a lot of private investment, and even some international investment, in light of the Olympics.

    Digging up the urban environment, and everything that entails — working around a dense existing population, relocating utilities and prepping the street — adds delay. Like NY, it seems like Beijing uses the word “subway” even though some lines will travel on the surface part of the time, and I believe that at least parts of these new lines, maybe even whole lines, will be above ground.

    These lines are not all equivalent to a Second Avenue subway, in terms of working in a dense urban environment, which also helps speed up construction. For instance, one of the new lines is set to serve Yizhuang, which has a development plan but is not entirely developed. You can check out this site to see a few pictures of that area. It’s definitely not New York. Good urban planning, though — at least their development is accompanied by a subway line. Another line is going to Daxing, which, as far as I can tell, is also more suburban in nature.

    Posted by Eric | 22 October 2007, 7:08 am
  3. It’s also worth noting that even in light of the expansion, Beijing still managed to cut its subway fares recently, and the city also plans to add a few thousand buses to further complement its expanding rail network.

    Posted by Eric | 22 October 2007, 7:26 am
  4. Despotism has some advantages, after all.

    Posted by Jeffrey W. Baker | 22 October 2007, 9:05 am
  5. Hence my last remark about seeking a “reasonable middle ground.” That said, a pro-transit benevolent dictator might be just the thing to clean up Bay Area transit once and for all. :)

    Posted by Eric | 22 October 2007, 9:29 am
  6. I was beat to it but my comment is Democracy is a bitch sometimes

    I am pretty certain they don’t do blue ribbon panels or solicit community input in China

    Of course I am kidding …

    but I personally am all for more top down planning than is currently considered acceptable in America. We have to much democracy in California

    Posted by Zig | 6 November 2007, 8:32 pm
  7. Let’s make that the next referendum vote: Do you support the election of a transit dictator for the City? You’ll have my vote, as long as it’s a good dictator.

    Posted by kfarr | 13 November 2007, 12:36 am

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