In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama urged Americans and Congress to embrace this generation’s Sputnik moment and spend more on technology and innovation to spur economic growth.
America is losing its edge to nations like China, Obama suggested, because we have failed to commit to a long-term vision to be competitive in this digital age. “China is building faster trains and newer airports,” the president said. “Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation's infrastructure, they gave us a ‘D.’”
“Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you go places in half the time it takes to travel by car,” said President Obama. “For some trips, it will be faster than flying—without the pat-down.”
The president’s comments raise an important question: How relevant are China’s investments in infrastructure to the challenges of U.S. economic competitiveness? Unfortunately, if China’s commitment to high-speed rail is a benchmark for the kind of commitment President Obama believes the U.S. must make to remain competitive, we may be learning the wrong lessons.
First, China’s transportation spending is very specific to its circumstances and its investment in high-speed rail should not be seen as independent of its need to develop a comprehensive transportation network. China eclipsed Japan last year to become the world’s second largest economy, but this achievement is not as significant as it might appear. While the amusement park glitz of the Bund in Shanghai and the skylines of Beijing, Guangzhou, and other cities are suitably impressive, they represent a nation in transition from poverty to middle-income status.
China’s per capita income (adjusted for purchasing power) still ranks 93rd worldwide according to the International Monetary Fund. China’s economic development is about the same level as the United States was back in the 1920s. And China’s Gross Domestic Product per person is only about 16 percent of that of the U.S.
While Beijing’s massive traffic nightmares occasionally get coverage in the Western press, urban Chinese workers typically commute and get around by walking, riding bicycles, or via very slow buses. The challenge for China is building a transportation system and network that provides mobility for workers and freight so that it can continue to support its economic growth within some of the world’s largest and most densely packed cities.
Despite our own urban traffic woes, the United States has a mature transportation system that provides the world’s best and most affordable mobility. China is really playing catch up, investing in all forms of transportation to match its unprecedented growth in the demand for mobility.
In the last 20 years, China has built a national expressway network larger than the one that connects the European Union and almost the equivalent of the U.S. Interstate Highway System to improve access between provinces and metropolitan areas.
Also, despite its investment in high-speed rail, air travel in China is expanding rapidly. In 2009, 166 airports were open to civilian transportation. This number is expected to increase to 260 by 2015. But, again, this is still substantially less than the 569 airports certified for scheduled service around America.
In the U.S. rail advocates envision the trains replacing cars and planes. Meanwhile, China’s investment in rail is not seen purely as a substitute for other means of traveling between cities and provinces, although it is forcing the domestic travel industry to focus on improved service along shorter air routes to stay competitive.
China’s developing transportation network is diversifying, becoming more layered, and taking advantage of the sheer scale of a national economy expected to add 400 million more people to its cities by 2025. High-speed rail is best seen as just one component of the larger national transportation network being built, not the backbone of the entire system.
Indeed, only about 10 percent of the 91,000 kilometers of intercity rail track are dedicated to high-speed rail. If anything, China is “rightsizing” its transportation network to reflect its burgeoning economy and the extraordinary foot print of its cities, five of which are “megacities” with populations over 10 million (Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzen, and Dongguan).
This leads to the second reason why China is fundamentally different than America: economic geography.
A key factor in ensuring high-speed rail’s success is the closeness of employment and population centers. The largest Chinese cities aren’t nearly as spread out as U.S. cities in terms of distance and the high speed rail lines are connecting larger urban cities.