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A Layman's Report on Chinese Transportation Systems

by Spence Meyers

I have recently returned from a three week vacation in China. Our department, The Center for Transportation Research, has a very active visiting scholar exchange program arranged with several highly respected Chinese transportation institutions. We host visiting students and professors who come here for a year abroad in America. These scholars, while they are here, learn about our transportation systems and through collaboration on various projects we learn their transportation system. This is a great program for sharing knowledge and understanding. I have been working at TTAP for several years and have conducted many technical assistance projects. The scholars here are always interested in our data collecting methods. They also want to practice their English language skills.

Beijing Railway Station
Main Beijing Train Station (built c. 1950's)

My wife and I have appointed ourselves "Unofficial Ambassadors" to this program. We each have a background in Anthropology and are imminently curious about studying other cultures. Our friends here are as fascinated with American culture as we are about Chinese culture so this has worked out well for all of us. Our Chinese friends are very excited about coming to America and love their experiences here. We have invited them to our house for cookouts and firearm practice, which they enjoy very much. But, while they are excited about visiting our country they are just as proud and patriotic about China as we are about our country. We could not resist their invitation to visit them in China any longer.

It is not that we did not want to go. It is simply that it is a very big endeavor. Traveling to any other country takes a lot of planning and this was no different. It took several months of planning and paperwork to ensure that everything would run smoothly. We also had to plan out our sightseeing agenda. China is a very big place with lots of things to see. With only three weeks, including the significant travel time, we had to be very judicious about our itinerary. The Chinese government is not resistive to foreign travelers; they just want to be sure that you have a place to stay and are planning to go home at the end of your visit. It is possible to stay in China and to live and work in China; they just want to know that it is your intention to do so before you arrive. In this respect it is much like our own immigration system. Luckily, we have many friends here at the University and many friends in China that could help us prepare and help us move about once we arrived there.

The purpose of my trip was, of course, tourism. However, I was keen to observe as many roadway similarities and differences as I could. Any visit to China will require a lot of transportation. It is a very large country and some of the most significant sites are well outside the cities. One of the first things you may notice about transportation in China is the prolific public transportation system. In the bigger cities you will have multiple bus routes on the main roads with multiple buses on each route. You will also often find these buses full of people. They even have many double-decker buses which my son was determined to ride. They have many routes and they are well used by citizens and tourists alike. The public transportation system does not stop at the street level. Underground you will find clean, fast, numerous, on time and crowded subway lines serving all of the major parts of the cities. When it comes to the end of the line and you go up top you will easily find a bus or taxi to take you to your final destination.

Bullet Train
Boarding the Bullet Train

On a larger scale you will find the intercity transportation systems to be prolific and well used. We took the high speed rail line (Bullet Train) from Beijing to Dalian, an ocean side city in the North. Most international connecting flights come through Beijing City International Airport (PEK) so this is how we arrived in the country. Beijing alone has four major rail stations. Our tickets were for the main station downtown. The rail station was a 1950s era structure. Although old, it was a fully modern terminal. Ticketing and boarding privilege was completely computerized. One consideration, at least to us on this day, English was not spoken anywhere at the train station. Airports are fully bilingual but not the train stations. Our friends in Beijing were able to get us set up at the correct waiting area and from there it was a simple matter to get on the train.

The train was on time and was as clean as a whistle. We "giant" Americans found the seats a little small but not terribly uncomfortable. Maybe a little less accommodating than a small airplane might be but not impossible. The Bullet Train is powered electrically so it leaves the station and picks up speed completely soundless. The tracks must be very smooth for the train to reach high speeds so even at over 200 mph the train is very quiet until another train meets us in the opposite direction. You really can notice the 400 mph "tornado" between the two trains. This was one of the experiences I was most eager to try out. I would be taking a real train ride. I was not disappointed. It gave us an opportunity to see the countryside and all of the small villages and some big towns along the way. There were huge mountains and beautiful rivers lining the tracks. It definitely takes longer to travel by train than by airplane, but some of the routes are equivalent overall after you calculate going through airport security and making your way to the proper gate in these huge airports. The train station is often much closer to the parts of the city you want to visit. Overall at least one trip on the bullet train should be everyone's goal in China.

Intercity air travel is very much comparable to what you may find in America. Ticket kiosks are prominently placed in the airports, at least at the three we used. Expect long lines to get your boarding pass and a long walk to the gate and a long line to board the plane. Long lines are actually prominent all over China, not only at airports. It is not difficult to find English speakers at airports. Their English may not be perfect so it may take a conversation for even the simplest questions but you will not have any trouble getting around. Security at Chinese airports is very stringent but not quite as demanding as in American airports. It is also much quicker.

Transportation Laboratory
Transportation Laboratory at Beijing Transportation University (Former CTR Scholar Liu Hua)

There are lots of cars in China and lots of traffic. I was only in a few really bad traffic jams but there was almost always lots of traffic. The roads were all very good. They had very well maintained asphalt surfaces. Traffic control devices were generally well placed and prevalent enough to direct traffic. I did not understand all of them, but I eventually figured out most of them. For instance, the curvy road ahead sign in China looks like a lightning bolt instead of a smooth "ess" shape. Most traffic lights had countdown timers so you could tell how much time remained on green or red.

Traffic behaves differently in China. A typical trip has the driver changing lanes almost constantly. This is possible because of much lower speeds and slower acceleration than those with which we are familiar. There is a lot more stopping and turning on streets here which causes backups for drivers to negotiate. It is very common and appropriate for a driver, while using the turn signal, to pull in front of moving traffic to avoid these stoppers. The turn signal is almost always used in these settings. Another widely used tool in China is the horn. The horn is used here more like an announcement that "I am here". If a driver is beginning a lane change, another driver may indicate that there will not be room for the maneuver by blowing the horn. The very frequent use of the horn is perhaps the most noticeable difference from our traffic.

Another noticeable feature is the types of vehicles. I have already mentioned the prolific bus service. In addition to these is the widespread use of "electric bicycles". These look like little motorcycles but are powered by a battery. I think they are more reminiscent of a moped. They are small, have a limited speed and have a small load capacity (generally one operator and one rider). A variation of this design has a large box (about 3 feet wide, 3 feet high and about 5 feet long) or a flatbed (about 3 feet by 5 feet) immediately behind the driver. This is what almost all deliveries are made with inside the city. There are no delivery trucks (like Fed Ex or UPS) and no semis on these urban roads. The box "scooters" are typically for mail order fulfillment. The flatbeds carry everything else. I saw a flatbed scooter with furniture, appliances, garbage or recyclables stacked six feet high, even dozens of cases of water bottles. This seemed the most improbable. There must have been 500 pounds of water on this scooter. And, of course, there were regular bicycles. They have millions of bicycles in the urban areas. All of these were significant obstacles to automobile traffic. I think overall the lack of semis on these crowded roads may have been a net plus.

Both highways and roads in China are in very good repair. This is partly due to a heavier reliance on rail for intercity freight and passenger service. Also many highways are toll roads. Our Chinese friends shrugged this off as a "you get what you pay for" kind of thing. The tolls were not large but they were common. The roads are very busy close to and within cities but on the open stretches of highways and toll roads they are quite clear. Speeds also increase in these settings. With a quick metric conversion in my head while traveling around the country it seemed that some of the fastest speeds were equivalent to our top interstate speeds but lower speeds were the norm. The Chinese rely heavily on traffic cameras for enforcement. I saw no police presence on any of the highways. In fact there were very few police cars on any of the streets that I traveled.

We have a lot to learn from our Chinese friends about mass transit. I think in general Chinese people are willing to sacrifice more conveniences to use mass transit than most Americans are, myself included. I want to be able to have my automobile close by. I want the freedom that driving myself to work allows. I think maybe with the huge population of people in China it is a luxury that is impossible to attain. The Chinese people really make good use of their public transportation systems. I feel that this is a lesson we need to learn here in America. More public transit would save on our fossil fuel usage and parking requirements. It would reduce snarling traffic jams. There are many potential benefits from more of us taking advantage of mass transit. But, we love cars in America. Well, the Chinese people love cars too.


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