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Demand for Long-Distance Travel Continues to Soar

Rising economic growth led to strong increases in demand for intercity rail and air travel. The HSR network already contained 6,800 miles of track by 2014, up from literally nothing in 2007 when the ambitious program began. Now there are about 12,500 miles of track and 2.5 million riders per day, nearly double the 1.3 million daily riders in 2012 (Y. Wang, 2013). The longest-distance routes, such as Beijing to Guangzhou, have never attracted many riders because the only slightly lower ticket price hardly makes up for the five-hour difference in travel time (the HSR trip takes eight hours, while the plane trip only three). However, between cities separated by shorter distances, ridership has continued to grow at a very healthy pace. Some discounts are provided to entice middle-class riders, but most of the riders are affluent and can afford the full price.

Although two other high-profile crashes have occurred since the 2011 train derailment in Wenzhou,6 the emphasis on reform has led to reconstruction of track that was not built in accordance with safety standards. This higher confidence in safety, along with rising incomes, has made HSR successful.

Growth in airline travel has been equally robust. The main beneficiaries have been city pairs far enough apart that air has a definite advantage over HSR. Much of the travel is for business purposes; even though the economy continues to concentrate in the eastern coastal cities, front-office types are still visiting factories in the central and western areas. Domestic tourism has been growing steadily as well.

Use of Transit and Nonmotorized Modes Remains Strong

Higher city revenues from both property taxes and road pricing have also been available to invest aggressively in nonmotorized infrastructure. One model city instituted a successful program that increased the use of walking and bicycling. It involved three elements: a clever marketing campaign promoting the "kingdom of bicycles" as a status symbol; major investments in bicycle lanes, off-street greenways, bike-sharing, and better sidewalks; and heightened enforcement of illegal parking. In a move borrowed from Finland ("Motorist Gets Ј80,000 Fine for Speeding in Finland," 2013), the city tied illegal-parking fines to income, and several eye-popping fines—widely discussed on microblogs—convinced drivers that the city meant business. The city became a frequent destination for city planners looking to implement similar systems.

Planners' interest was growing in part because, even with restrictions on vehicle ownership, parking remained a major issue in many cities. Many cities lacked centrally located land on which to construct surface parking lots or even multistory garages.

Commuting times have been slowly increasing with urbanization, but the trend of factory workers living near their places of employment has also continued. Also, as part of late-2010s reforms, local governments have been less disposed to resettling residents in far-flung developments, which had so often resulted in protests. Instead, those governments paid more attention to building new developments closer to existing urbanized areas that could more easily be served with rail. The trend of building entirely new cities on greenfield sites has abated as well.

Transit has also continued to play an important role, especially in the second- and third-tier cities that benefited from major new urban transit projects, including heavy rail, light rail, and BRT. Although transit use in China has always been high by world standards, in many cities, the investments in transit have prevented additional growth in driving.

Opportunities and Challenges Lie Ahead

China has managed its way through what might have become a serious economic crisis in the 2010s and has a solid economic basis on which to build. Inequality remains a problem, and one major goal is now to spread the wealth more evenly so that more people benefit. Growth in travel demand will eventually slow now that the intercity network is built out and constraints remain on owning and driving personal vehicles. The environmental movement will likely play a larger role in the future as more Chinese people recognize that responding to environmental and climate problems means major lifestyle changes and not just regulation. In the cities, quality-of-life issues will assume a more prominent role in policy, and the cities that are best able to compete will be those that can attract new residents based on amenities and not simply jobs.

 
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