How to Build Infrastructure Quickly and Efficiently: Learn From the Chinese

Screen capture. Bridge building machine

One of the amazing things in China is how fast everything gets built. If we did things this way in North America, we would have high speed rail connecting every town and subways underneath every city. They have a couple of advantages to start with; they don't have to negotiate for land because the State owns it all. They don't have to have those pesky public reviews or do environmental impact statements. They just decide where they want to put a train or a road and do it.

But then the magic really starts. Because they have developed all of this amazing machinery to do it so quickly and efficiently. Take this machine. The high speed rail network is elevated for much of its route to eliminate the need for level crossings. In North America, precast bridge sections would be probably delivered by truck and lifted into place by cranes. In China, they developed this incredible truck that drives along the railbed, carrying a section of precast concrete railbed. With the precast acting as a counterweight, It telescopes out and drops legs onto the next pier, then slides the railbed out and drops it into place. lift up, roll back and then drive back to pick up the next section. Rinse and repeat. It's fantastic.

road buiding

Building bridge/Screen capture

Then there are the roads. In North America, building a new bridge takes months, closing or restricting the highway under it the whole time. In Beijing, it was projected that the replacement of the Sanyuan Bridge would take two months; this would have been a serious problem for roads that are already crowded beyond North American comprehension. Here, they slid this one into place in 43 hours.

It isn't all sweetness and light of course, perhaps a little more environmental oversight would be nice. But there is a lot to learn about rethinking construction processes, both for high rise buildings and for public infrastructure.

Every time I show these videos, people comment about how lax safety standards are, and how crummy the buildings are. I have been in this one, and a few others built by Broad and the safety standards are as high as I have seen anywhere, and the build quality is fine. The walls are super-insulated, the windows quadruple glazed and the air quality is extremely good. Really, if we want to build better infrastructure and more efficient green buildings, we could learn a lot by watching what is going on in China.