The World's Largest Subway, and Other Chinese Adventures


In just over a decade, Beijing is set to have the world's most extensive subway network. That may not shock you—this is China, after all—unless you know, as Lloyd's recent post reminds us, that Beijing currently has one of the world's weakest subway networks. The city is so large and the system is so limited that public transit penetration lingers at 30 20 percent, less than half that of most of the world's developed cities. As Beijing's car population grows with its ring roads (Beijing is now hitting its sixth ring), stretching and clogging the city, planners are worried; by 2020 they are aiming for a subway web 561 km big, which will be wider than that of London's (if not, we imagine, more sublime than Moscow's aging soviet underground). Though the cost of the expansion has not been calculated, even before the 2008 "Green" Olympics brings a million visitors to the city, Beijing is expected to spend somewhere between 200-250 billion RMB on transportation upgrades, including new bus lines and the new subway lines 5, 8 and 10. (The current cost of a subway ticket in Beijing: 3 RMB, about 40 US cents.)

If the subway expansion doesn't work, there's always the world's largest underground city and road network...Despite China's passion for large numbers and larger record-setting superprojects (like the almost complete Three Gorges Dam), the chances of this actually happening (on schedule) seem as slim as a Beijing fried noodle. And its likliehood of helping is diminished in the face of increasing Los Angeles-style sprawl and the 1000+ cars per day that go with it. Still, the subway plan is impressive and badly-needed.

In that category, though, it already has a formidable rival: one of the world's largest planned aqueducts. The South-to-North Water Diversion Project will cost over RMB 500 billion ($62 billion) and will bring water from the Yangtze River to the Chinese capital, which by some estimates is more parched than Israel. According to the China Daily,

The project comprises three canals, each running more than 1,000 kilometers across the eastern, central and western parts of the country.
The scheme, which is scheduled for completion around 2050, is expected to cost nearly 500 billion yuan ($62 billion).
Once finished, it will be capable of delivering 44.8 billion cubic meters of water annually, according to figures from the Ministry of Water Resources.

But then there's the quality of that water. Not only are its banks are on the verge of collapsing, but the Yangtze is seriously polluted.

"The impact of human activities on the Yangtze water ecology is largely irreversible," says Yang Guishan, a researcher of the Nanjing Institute of Geography and Limnology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences. "It's a pressing job to regulate such activities in all the Yangtze drainage areas and promote harmonious development of man and nature."


Three Gorges Dam Project, Dam #6, Yangtze River, China, 2005, Edward Burtynsky

As Prof. Weng Lida, former head of the Yangtze River Water Resources Commission, points out, in the context of the effect of the Three Gorges Dam project:

"We have to take into consideration the proper settlement of the people who have been displaced, environmental protection, heavy silting and the prevention of geological disasters," said Weng who cautioned that "faster is not always better."

There are some challenges for which super-projects can offer no solution. From now on, smart choices—be them good city planning, strict enforcement of regulations or the strengthening of the legal system—remain the best infrastructure for a China that is healthy environmentally and every other way too.

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