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Somehow, some way, subway

Shanghai is on the fast track to build the world's largest rail system. Development is far easier when no one can say 'slow down.'

August 25, 2007|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer


In 1990, four years after Los Angeles broke ground on its Red Line subway, Shanghai began to build a subway system too.

Los Angeles was one of the richest cities in the world, with an extensive freeway network, top-notch engineers and serious congestion problems. Shanghai was poor, a decaying post-colonial metropolis shaking off decades of economic stagnation. Its streets were congested too -- with bicycles.

Most Los Angeles residents know the story of what happened to the Red Line, which was designed to carry passengers from Downtown to the sea but hasn't quite gotten there. Only recently have planning discussions seriously revived to add a rail line extending farther west.

Shanghai? It is well on its way to building the largest urban rail mass transit system in the world.

You can't walk very far in a straight line in Shanghai these days without coming across construction of a new subway line or station. Already, Shanghai has opened five subway lines and 95 stations serving 2 million people a day, and as many as six more lines are scheduled to open in the next couple of years. Sometime in the next decade, its subway system probably will surpass the world's largest and busiest systems, those in New York, Moscow and Tokyo.

In fact, transit experts say, only one thing short of a cataclysmic disaster could conceivably prevent Shanghai from winding up with the world's largest subway system. That is the very real possibility that another Chinese city -- specifically, Guangzhou, Beijing or Chongqing -- could build an even larger system.

In all, 36 Chinese cities are in the midst of building rail-based public transit systems, said Zhang Jianwei, president of Bombardier China, the Chinese arm of the Canadian company that has supplied rail cars to a number of Chinese cities.

What explains this sudden frenzy of infrastructural one- upmanship? It's simple, experts say.

China's economy is booming. Its people are moving from the countryside into cities as part of the greatest human migration in history. Car ownership is growing explosively. And the government has decided that it needs to do something about congestion before its busiest cities grind to a standstill.

China seems little hindered by the pressures that plague transit projects in the West.

Financial woes sandbagged New York's Second Avenue subway for about 80 years until ground was broken this spring. L.A.'s subway system, whose westward march was halted at Western Avenue in 1996, has been constricted by environmental, political and financial pressures.

In China, labor is cheap, the land belongs to the government, air pollution is the primary environmental concern, and political pressure moves largely in one direction -- from the Communist Party leadership on down.

"If the government wants to do something, even if the conditions are not ready for it, it will be done," said Zheng Shiling, an influential Chinese architect who teaches at Tongji University in Shanghai.

At the risk of only slight oversimplification, the system works like this: Planners draw subway lines on a map. Party officials approve them. Construction begins. If anything is in the way, it is moved. If they need to, Chinese planners "just move 10,000 people out of the way," said Lee Schipper, a transport planner who has worked with several Chinese cities in his role as director of research for EMBARQ, a Washington-based transportation think tank. "They don't have hearings."

Schipper recalled consulting with one Chinese metropolis whose ancient city wall stood in the way of a transportation project.

"One of the members of the People's Committee said, 'Oh, I know how we'll solve the problem. We'll move the historic wall.' " It was, he said, as if a planner in Washington proposed moving the Potomac River to make way for construction.

Yu Jifong understands all this from personal experience.

For 25 years, the bubbly Shanghai native lived in an apartment that sat on the site of a future subway station, part of what will be Shanghai's 10th subway line. Not long ago, she got notice that she would have to move. Last month, she was settling into a new apartment miles away from the old one, in a new development housing more than 1,100 families displaced by the construction of Line 10. Many others accepted compensation that would help them buy apartments elsewhere.

What is striking in Shanghai is how few people seem to mind this upheaval, in part because the city has dramatically improved the compensation it provides to dislocated people and businesses, and in part because residents seem to accept the idea that the subway represents the greater good for the city.

Yu, who is unemployed, was overjoyed by the opportunity to move from the slum tenement where she had lived with seven other family members in a 300-square-foot apartment.

Far from resenting the move, she said, "we were looking forward to relocate so we could change our situation."

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