In 1990, four years after Los Angeles broke ground on its Red Line subway, Shanghai began to build a subway system too.
Los Angeles was one of the richest cities in the world, with an extensive freeway network, top-notch engineers and serious congestion problems. Shanghai was poor, a decaying post-colonial metropolis shaking off decades of economic stagnation. Its streets were congested too -- with bicycles.
Most Los Angeles residents know the story of what happened to the Red Line, which was designed to carry passengers from Downtown to the sea but hasn’t quite gotten there. Only recently have planning discussions seriously revived to add a rail line extending farther west.
Shanghai? It is well on its way to building the largest urban rail mass transit system in the world.
You can’t walk very far in a straight line in Shanghai these days without coming across construction of a new subway line or station. Already, Shanghai has opened five subway lines and 95 stations serving 2 million people a day, and as many as six more lines are scheduled to open in the next couple of years. Sometime in the next decade, its subway system probably will surpass the world’s largest and busiest systems, those in New York, Moscow and Tokyo.
In fact, transit experts say, only one thing short of a cataclysmic disaster could conceivably prevent Shanghai from winding up with the world’s largest subway system. That is the very real possibility that another Chinese city -- specifically, Guangzhou, Beijing or Chongqing -- could build an even larger system.
In all, 36 Chinese cities are in the midst of building rail-based public transit systems, said Zhang Jianwei, president of Bombardier China, the Chinese arm of the Canadian company that has supplied rail cars to a number of Chinese cities.
What explains this sudden frenzy of infrastructural one- upmanship? It’s simple, experts say.
China’s economy is booming. Its people are moving from the countryside into cities as part of the greatest human migration in history. Car ownership is growing explosively. And the government has decided that it needs to do something about congestion before its busiest cities grind to a standstill.
China seems little hindered by the pressures that plague transit projects in the West.
Financial woes sandbagged New York’s Second Avenue subway for about 80 years until ground was broken this spring. L.A.'s subway system, whose westward march was halted at Western Avenue in 1996, has been constricted by environmental, political and financial pressures.
In China, labor is cheap, the land belongs to the government, air pollution is the primary environmental concern, and political pressure moves largely in one direction -- from the Communist Party leadership on down.
“If the government wants to do something, even if the conditions are not ready for it, it will be done,” said Zheng Shiling, an influential Chinese architect who teaches at Tongji University in Shanghai.
At the risk of only slight oversimplification, the system works like this: Planners draw subway lines on a map. Party officials approve them. Construction begins. If anything is in the way, it is moved. If they need to, Chinese planners “just move 10,000 people out of the way,” said Lee Schipper, a transport planner who has worked with several Chinese cities in his role as director of research for EMBARQ, a Washington-based transportation think tank. “They don’t have hearings.”
Schipper recalled consulting with one Chinese metropolis whose ancient city wall stood in the way of a transportation project.
“One of the members of the People’s Committee said, ‘Oh, I know how we’ll solve the problem. We’ll move the historic wall.’ ” It was, he said, as if a planner in Washington proposed moving the Potomac River to make way for construction.
Yu Jifong understands all this from personal experience.
For 25 years, the bubbly Shanghai native lived in an apartment that sat on the site of a future subway station, part of what will be Shanghai’s 10th subway line. Not long ago, she got notice that she would have to move. Last month, she was settling into a new apartment miles away from the old one, in a new development housing more than 1,100 families displaced by the construction of Line 10. Many others accepted compensation that would help them buy apartments elsewhere.
What is striking in Shanghai is how few people seem to mind this upheaval, in part because the city has dramatically improved the compensation it provides to dislocated people and businesses, and in part because residents seem to accept the idea that the subway represents the greater good for the city.
Yu, who is unemployed, was overjoyed by the opportunity to move from the slum tenement where she had lived with seven other family members in a 300-square-foot apartment.
Far from resenting the move, she said, “we were looking forward to relocate so we could change our situation.”
The city provided three new apartments for the family, including the spotless 700-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment she now shares with her son, her father and three generations of the Shih Tzu dogs she raises. The apartment is legally hers, although she had to promise not to sell it for five years.
Sitting in her new living room, in front of a display case containing photographs of her dogs and one of Mao Tse-tung, Yu broke into a sassy smile.
“I’m kind of enjoying the municipal relocation,” she said.
Even people whose experience has been less satisfactory say the subway construction is worth it.
Guo Jian Hong, the manager of a tobacco and sundries store in central Shanghai, has seen her business dry to a trickle because subway construction has turned her street into a dead-end. Still, she said, “the subway is a good thing -- it benefits people.” Some residents and stores nearby had to be relocated, she said, but “I haven’t heard of any complaints or protests.”
“Maybe in foreign countries it’s different,” she said, “but in China it’s no problem.”
Xu Dao Fang, an engineering consultant with the Shanghai Transportation Assn. who helped design the city’s subway system, said he encounters envy when he talks to transportation planners elsewhere who must appease opposing forces before forging ahead.
In the United States, he said, “you cannot neglect the opinions of all the various parties. Here, it’s a lot easier because the system is more centered.”
Brian Taylor, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, noted that the United States used to be much more heavy-handed in its planning policies. Consider, for instance, the way whole swaths of central Los Angeles were razed to make way for the Santa Monica Freeway. Perhaps, he said, China is simply at a different stage in its evolution, both in terms of economic development and political participation.
From about 1890 to the late 1970s, he said, Los Angeles expanded its transportation system at an astonishing rate, first building the world’s most extensive streetcar system and then tearing it down and building the world’s first and largest freeway network.
“So it’s not as if we haven’t had these enormous investment eras in transportation infrastructure,” Taylor said.
Cities “go through these various epochs of growth,” he said, and at the moment, Los Angeles is in a very different stage than Shanghai.
“So while we’re investing in new rail lines here, it’s in the context of an enormously extensive bus system in the midst of an enormously extensive road system. Whereas in Shanghai, the situation is very, very different.”
With a population of more than 20 million people, and more arriving every day, Shanghai is an urban planner’s dream and nightmare. Its streets strike a visitor as a free-for-all, a mad crush of people and bicycles and motorcycles and cars, all swooping in and out, sometimes at breakneck speeds, seemingly missing each other by millimeters, except when they don’t.
The amazing thing is that, generally speaking, it all works. Like L.A., New York or any other great city, there’s an improbable alchemy at work.
It won’t work forever, though, as cars replace bicycles and the population continues to increase. The city is banking on the subway system to serve as a pressure valve for congestion. Some transportation planners warn that it won’t accomplish that goal if Shanghai doesn’t take other steps to reduce the number of cars heading into the city center every day.
At the moment, Shanghai’s five subway lines, if laid end to end, would run about 80 miles. By the end of this year, that figure should be 125 miles; by 2010, when a world exposition will be held in Shanghai, it is expected to double to about 250 miles, with five or six more lines opening.
Plans call for a system that, by about 2020, would resemble a spaghetti bowl, with 22 lines and hundreds of stations. The system would stretch about 560 miles and serve more than 12 million people a day.
No subway system in the world comes close to that.
“Yes, we were quite forward-thinking,” said Xu, the city planner. “Because our aim, our target, was pretty clear. Shanghai cannot lag behind forever. If you don’t have the hope, the dream, you cannot have city planning.
“We have no other option. We will pass away, but Shanghai will still be here.”
Cao Jun in The Times’ Shanghai Bureau contributed to this report.