Mass Transit and a Soaring Car Culture Clash in China

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

Mass transit and a soaring car culture clash in China, as 15 cities build subway lines and a dozen more plan them:

Subways have been most competitive in cities like New York that have high prices for parking, and tolls for bridges and tunnels, discouraging car use. Few Chinese cities have been willing to follow suit, other than Shanghai, which charges a fee of several thousand dollars for each license plate.

Few cities anywhere seem willing to charge market prices for valuable real estate once it’s paved over as a road or parking lot. Further, Shanghai’s answer of charging thousands for a license plate keeps the marginal cost of driving and parking close to zero; it doesn’t get cars off the road.

The cost and physical limitations of subways have discouraged most cities from building new ones. For instance, only Tokyo has a subway system that carries more people than its buses. The buses are cheaper and able to serve far more streets but move more slowly, pollute more and contribute to traffic congestion.

Proponents of mass transit like to phrase it that way — that buses contribute to congestion — but that’s another way of saying that buses share the existing road with cars. Buses don’t require digging up an entire alternative underground road or rail system. If we wanted to, I’m sure we could, but it wouldn’t justify the cost.

China has reason to worry. It surpassed the United States in total vehicle sales for the first time in January, although the United States remained slightly ahead in car sales. But in February, China overtook the United States in both, in part because the global downturn has hurt auto sales much more in the United States than in China.

I find it odd that China, lauded for its strong centralized authority, can’t manage exactly the kind of problems a strong centralized authority should be able to manage. Why is the government providing all the infrastructure for cars, if it has decided to go with mass transit?

Leave a Reply