A short story of two cities (Trans-Sib 4)

Over-investment in a metro in Kazan and under-investment in Beijing.

The Russian city of Kazan , capital of semi-autonomous Tatarstan, has splurged some of its oil wealth on a charming new metro: five stations long and near empty at 7.30 p.m when I took this shot:

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The jolly mosaics:

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cover every Tatar worthy and legend except the white elephant.

While Michael Hare is basically correct on urban transport, a low-density city of 1 million does not automatically need a metro, and this particular one seems premature. My nearest Spanish city, Málaga, has only 0.6 million people and is building three metro lines. The population density is much higher, as the city is jammed into a small triangle of flat land on the coast, and the investment looks reasonable. Whether reasonably or not, the animal spirits of European politicians turn naturally to underground monuments with rails.

Beijing is a giant metropolis of 15 million. I’d expected the metro to be something like that of Moscow, widely seen as the world’s best – not because of the Art Deco chandeliers but the coherent design. Not so; Beijing has only three lines (Wikipedia says 4 but I’m going by the map in the stations), with one under construction. The western railway station isn’t even on the network. Madrid, with under six million inhabitants, has twelve lines; Hong Kong has seven, a fine system bequeathed by the Gladstonian Scots paternalists who ran HK as a British colony.

History explains the contrasting legacies of Beijing and Moscow. The great monsters who ruled them for decades, Stalin and Mao, stood on opposite sides of the urban-rural divide: Stalin, like other Bolsheviks, was an urban romantic who hated peasants; Mao despised the city-dwellers who had let him down in Shanghai in 1927 and idealised peasants, though he killed as many real ones as Stalin. So Mao had no desire to compete with Stalin’s great metro.

History does not explain or justify the bizarre policies of the current Chinese leadership. Apparently obsessed by a failed American model of urban development, it is investing heavily in urban roads. The car population is still low enough for traffic to move fairly easily; though the small fleet of middle-class cars has already driven the poor off their bikes and on to antiquated buses.

This model is incoherent. It’s surely impossible – not difficult, impossible, however many flyovers you build – to run a city of 15 million at medium densities on the basis of majority, let alone universal, use of private cars. LA is the world’s only city on this scale that runs, sort of, on this model; and it sprawls over a huge area. If you assume that all the Beijing population lies inside the 5th Ring Road, the density is about 50,000 per km²; take the 6th Ring Road, and it’s still 10.000. Even with special pleading by the authors of this Wikipedia article , the LA urbanised area only has 2,700 per km². LA is not an urban model but a freak, a coelacanthine living fossil, like Venice.

If I’m right, Beijing is headed for gridlock on a massive scale, and very fast given the pace of growth and car buying. Road pricing, i.e. driving the mass of the population back on to public transport, only works as it does in London and Singapore if there’s a public transport system for them to go to. The mistake of Beijing’s rulers will be difficult and slow to reverse; you can only do so much with bus and cycle lanes, and a good mass transit system requires a decade to build.

There will be political consequences. LA and Mexico City are democracies; the voters fuming in their traffic jams assume the city government is more or less corrupt and incompetent, and know they have ultimately themselves to blame for electing it. China’s rulers have no such let-out. The have no claim to legitimacy except technocratic competence. And in their capital city they’ve already blown it.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web