L.A. Has More Freeways Than Entire Nation : Poor Road System Hampers China’s Growth

Times Staff Writer

Here, 20 miles from downtown Peking, you can open up the accelerator on a new stretch of six-lane divided highway and reach a speed of as much as 50 miles per hour.

You may find bicycles and donkey carts pulling out from the mud brick homes along the side of the road into two of the six lanes. You may swear at truck drivers weaving from lane to lane without even a glance at the rear view mirror. You will certainly not see any gas stations, restaurants, stores or restrooms.

But these are minor inconveniences in a unique driving experience. Yours is likely to be the only passenger car on the road--and the road is one of the very few stretches of open highway in all of China.

Despite the many changes of the past few years, China remains the largest country in the world that still exists virtually without a highway system. There are more miles of freeways in greater Los Angeles than can be found from Tibet to Shanghai.


The percentage of land area devoted to roads in China is only 3% as much as in Japan, and only 12% as much as in the United States. An estimated 36% of all Chinese villages have no passable roads at all.

Significant Obstacle

The lack of adequate road transportation has become a significant obstacle in China’s effort to modernize.

At a time when China is trying to move toward a market economy, the absence of roads has meant that there is no national market. Farmers who grow crops in one area can’t get them moved to other regions. Factories have trouble obtaining crucial supplies.


The railroads that carry goods to China’s interior and the ships that carry supplies up and down the coastline are now jammed well beyond their capacity. As a result, Chinese authorities are beginning to look to highways as a means of relieving the transportation snarls, at least for short-haul freight.

Last year, the Communist Party organ People’s Daily announced, “The leading comrades of all places should have a better understanding of the situation, do everything in terms of the interests and expectations of the masses, and grasp well the work of revamping the roads.”

Now, China is just beginning to build its first stretches of expressway. Even these plans are modest ones: Within the next few years, the aim is merely to construct a few hundred miles of superhighways outward from a few key eastern coastal cities, such as Peking, Shanghai, Canton and Shenyang.

A Long Way Off


But building modern highways into China’s vast interior is still decades away. “They say they would eventually like to connect all of China’s provincial capitals (with expressways),” said one young Western transportation specialist here. “My children, when they are stationed here, may see that.”

Until these new highways are built, the country will be left with its present, antiquated thoroughfares--where, by official Chinese estimates, the average rate of speed is presently about 19 miles an hour.

Private car ownership in China remains virtually nonexistent. Ordinary residents of Chinese cities travel either by bicycle or by bus. High-ranking Chinese officials move in curtain-shrouded, chauffeur-driven cars supplied by their work units.

Foreign embassies and companies based in China also generally employ drivers for their vehicles. Nevertheless, many foreigners here do at least occasionally--whether out of necessity or a sense of adventure--drive their own cars.


For those who do, an automobile ride upon the Chinese roads gives new meaning to the admonition, “Drive defensively.”

Pedestrians walk, amble or run into the streets at will. Few, if any, of them have ever been indoctrinated as children with the standard American warning to stop, look and listen. Carts, bicycles and vehicles of all kinds also emerge suddenly from the roadside. Accidents between cars and bicycles are commonplace.

Truckers Ignore Cars

Drivers of trucks and buses--many of whom first learned how to drive while serving in the People’s Liberation Army--give scant notice to cars and taxis. One joke here is that in China, the concept of “right of way” has been replaced by “right of weight.”


The condition of the roads varies from passable to abysmal. Even the main thoroughfare from Peking to the port outside Tianjin, one of the most important sections of highway in China, is dotted with bumps and potholes.

Transportation specialists say China faces a number of formidable geographic obstacles in trying to build a road system.

One of these is the severity of the winters in North China. The hard freezes and quick thaws inevitably create problems for roadbeds, and experts say China has yet to develop asphalt techniques reliable enough to withstand the cold climate.

Another problem is the lack of enough rivers to facilitate transportation of road building equipment and supplies into the interior. China does move freight inland along the Yangtze River, but transportation experts say the nation simply is not blessed with the network of inland waterways that helped the building of roads in Europe or the United States.


Until now, China has relied heavily on rail transportation, and indeed, the railroads will probably remain the nation’s principal means of carrying freight in the future. But over the past few years, Chinese authorities have increasingly voiced the fear that their rail system alone is not enough to meet the needs of the developing economy.

‘Tension’ in System

Earlier this year, Chinese Vice Minister Yao Yilin told a group of Hong Kong reporters that there is “tension” in China’s rail transportation system now. He said the railroads are carrying so many much short-haul freight that there is not enough space for long-distance loads.

“The transportation of coal has become a serious problem,” the vice premier acknowledged.


A few weeks ago, China announced steep hikes in rail freight charges for trips of 125 miles or less. The aim is to divert short-haul cargo off the railroads and into trucks.

Chinese peasants appear to be pushing for better roads almost as much as the economic planners and factory managers.

“Transportation is the weak link in the rural economy,” complained the Chinese newspaper Farmers’ Daily two months ago. It said that “Chinese farm produce does not have sufficient routes or vehicles to carry it to market.”

Another publication, the China Peasant Journal, said the building of roads “is vital for the development of economically backward mountain areas.”


China, whose surface area is slightly larger than that of the United States, now has about 575,000 miles of roads. A report by the official New China News Agency last December acknowledged that “most of them are poorly surfaced.” About two-thirds of the roads are classified as local highways for rural counties and townships.

Seek Peasants’ Help

The regime’s road building strategy in rural areas now is to get peasants to help out on construction projects.

“The jobs should be done mainly by farmers, with support from the government,” said the Farmers’ Daily. “The principle of letting those who build roads benefit should be observed. . . . Aid to certain regions could be changed into payments for farmers to build roads.”


The highway department of China’s Ministry of Communications said earlier this year that it hopes to build 60,000 miles of rural roads by 1987. It said peasants will be paid for road building from a special fund of about $1 billion worth of grain, cotton and cloth.

Along the eastern coast, the goal is to build expressways linking the most important cities.

Work has already started on one superhighway that will run from Canton to the special economic zone of Shenzhen on the border with Hong Kong. Construction is also expected to begin soon on an expressway that will go from Peking to Tianjin and the port of Tanggu.

Chinese transportation officials are also laying out plans for modern highways between Shanghai and the cities of Hangzhou and Nanjing and between the Manchurian cities of Shenyang and Dalian.


Major Turnaround

The road building effort by the authorities in Peking represents a 180-degree change from the days when China left highway construction up to local officials.