Asian-based writer Adam Minter has taken a hard look at China’s high-speed rail program and found it wanting. The country has built some 12,000 miles of high-speed rail lines, more than the rest of the world combined.
Despite China’s population density and low rate of auto ownership, only one line makes money. The state-owned China Railways Corporation is $600 billion in debt, and that debt is increasing by more than $60 billion per year. It has gotten to the point where the country is building rail mainly to stimulate the economy, not to improve transportation.
If high-speed rail doesn’t work in China, how can it work in the United States? “Just say no” to high-speed rail, Minter concludes.
Given Minter’s hard-boiled skepticism about high-speed rail, why does he fall for the notion that monorails make sense? At least, he thinks they make sense in developing nations. As proof, he points to monorails in–where else?–China, namely Chongqing, which he claims are cheaper to build than subways, better for the environment than cars, and–because they are supported by relatively thin pylons–have minimal land-use impacts and aren’t impeded by “traffic-choked cities.”
Yet monorails suffer the same problem as every other form of fixed-guideway transit: they can only go to a few places. Streets are everywhere people live, and they can be used by buses, private and shared automobiles, trucks, and a variety of other forms of transportation. No matter how cheap Minter thinks monorails are, they will cost–like other fixed-guideway systems–more per mile than streets and carry fewer people and, probably, no freight.
So what to do about “traffic-choked cities”? The simple answer is to stop building dense cities. Dense cities are only built by governments or with government subsidies or mandates.
I can’t find an estimate of how much of China has been urbanized to date, but it can’t be much. China’s overall population density is about 370 people per square mile. That’s about four times as great as the United States, where just three percent of the country is urbanized. Only about half the people in China live in urban areas, compared with 81 percent in the United States, and China’s urban areas are much denser. So it seems likely that only about 3 percent of China is urbanized as well. If China were to allow cities to expand so that traffic is not so choked, urban areas might cover 10 or 12 percent of the country, leaving plenty of land for farms and other rural uses.
Even if the Chinese government won’t let that happen, monorails are not the solution. Their capacity for moving people is low, their speeds are slow, and their costs are high. A better solution is to improve bus-rapid transit, while relieving congestion with a variable mileage-based user fee.