27 November 2013

Kunming’s new metro system is slowly but surely taking form. It’s unlikely it will have been worth the nuisance or the money.

Kunming Rail Logo
Kunming Rail Logo

There’s something to be said for metro systems. They’re clean, fast and almost entirely invisible from above the ground. For large yet space-strapped cities like New York or Hong Kong, they’re the only efficient public transport solution. In other cities, such as Berlin, there simply wasn’t any other mass transit technology available when it was built.

But for smaller and more modern towns with loads of space, like Kunming, the question arises whether a metro is the right solution. Is the Kunming Metro really a worth the pain? Or is it just another China mess, in which politicians vying recognition from Beijing ruin entire cities with prestige projects?

Construction costs off the rails

A piece by The Economist suggests that it may be. In the article, professor Zhao Jian (赵坚) from Beijing Jiaotong (Transportation) University says that operating the metro lines in 20 out of the 38 Chinese cities that have them will be a bottomless pit. Indeed, the estimated building costs alone have ballooned from 35 billion yuan (€ 4,4 billion) in 2010 to a whopping 300 billion yuan (€ 37,5 billion) in 2013 due to delays and the planning of an additional eight metro lines in November 2012.

Kunming metro map (unofficial)
Unofficial Kunming metro map with all lines (full size on Weibo)

With Kunming’s annual revenue around 37,8 billion yuan (€ 4,7 billion), the folks at Moneyweek calculated that Kunming has incurred eight years of debt for just building a metro. Ticket prices won’t alleviate the financial pain: at 2-5 yuan (€ 0,25-0,62) a ticket and a very optimistic average daily ridership of 48% (Beijing), it will take 759 years to pay back the construction cost, not to mention the undoubtedly sky-high operating and maintenance costs. Kunming may be growing quickly, but it is unclear whether the local government isn’t digging its own grave.

Need for speed

Kunmingers can be excused for wanting a properly functioning mass-transit system. Many citizens testify that, just five years ago, they had never heard about a traffic jam. On a regular day anno 2013, a bicycle is the fastest way of getting around town for distances of up to 15 km. At more congested times, any four-wheeled vehicle could get stuck in traffic for hours on end.

From the vantage point of my apartment, I can literally see the number of cars increase every time I come back from a short spell outside the city. Smoke-spewing buses groan with the weight of their human load and riders have to stand for hours to arrive at their destinations.

Traffic Madness on Beijing Road
Traffic Madness on Beijing Road

Car ownership, rural exodus to blame

There are many causes to blame. The most obvious being the increase in car ownership. The Kunming and national governments actively promote car ownership. To boost the economy through mass consumption and to instil a sense of wealth. And they’ve succeeded: every young urbanite wants a flat and a car, living the Chinese dream.

Cycling, if not for exercise, is still largely seen as a means of transport for the poor. In a country where flaunting your riches is standard, so cars win, even though the dry climate and mild temperatures would make cycling an almost perfect way to get around. Cars also bring us to the next cause: no traffic rules or the lack of traffic rule enforcement causes daily chaos on Kunming’s streets. Another reason is the rural exodus, heavily encouraged by the government by means of propaganda billboards.

Billboard encouraging rural exodus
Billboard encouraging rural exodus: “Farmers: climb the mountains and enter the city, to hasten development and create long-lasting peace and stability.” Photo by Matthew Hartzell

Slowly getting there

Although it’s unlikely to have been worth the pollution, the noise, the money and the lives (in January 2013, a failed metro test run resulted in the death of a young engine driver), Kunming’s metro is slowly but surely taking form. Line 1, going from nowhere to the middle of nowhere, as someone joked, opened in May this year after the airport line opened with the new airport in June 2012.

Beijing Lu construction pit
Nightly nonging at a Beijing Lu construction pit

The few people that actually use them (on the first day, a mere 8000 people rode Line 1), were happy. In a piece by government-owned Kunming.cn, Mr. Luo says he’s excited that the new metro saves him an hour when commuting to work in Chenggong, a newly built district some 20 km from the city centre.

Yet construction seems to be plagued by numerous delays and shortages of funds. On Beijing Road, construction was planned to be finished by November 15, but, as the time-lapse videos below clearly show, the stations underneath my window are not nearly finished at the time of writing.

The Kunming government, along with many of its citizens that are plagued by prolonged construction noise, pollution and congestion, probably wishes it had chosen the way less cost- and time-intensive option of a Bus Rapid Transit system.

The alternatives: BRT or tramway

Update: after some discussion ensued on several websites, such as Reddit and Raouls China Saloon, I realised my point didn’t come across entirely. Hence the following addition.

Kunming would be better off with an overground mass-transit system such as a BRT or a tramway than with an expensive underground. The underground option is unsafe because Kunming’s built on swamp land. It is also extremely expensive as argued above, and although almost no subway system on Earth pays for itself, Kunming may not be able to afford 8 annual city revenue equivalents in debt. The third con is that it’s invasive. Kunming pollution levels have more than doubled since 2010, its streets are in chaos and construction noise continues all night. Work really only stops to eat, not to sleep. Finally, the system perpetuates the idea that the car is the way to go and everything else should go underground.

What are the alternatives? As cited above, Guangzhou runs a very efficient BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) system alongside its metro. BRTs have their own dedicated lanes and can therefore move unhindered by traffic. Its buses are clean, a little more expensive and well air-conditioned, which also takes away the lower or working class reputation that buses seem to have. Tramways or even trolley buses are also viable alternatives, although tramway tracks need maintenance and bicycles can get stuck in them – and trolley buses are limited in their movement.

Kunming seems to have chosen the typical China answer to a problem: a shiny solution that is more expensive than effective.

2 thoughts on “Kunming in Deep: Metro Woes”

  1. I’d be surprised if before it built its subway, Berlin didn’t already have extensive above-ground mass transit system (S-Bahn, or tram, or streetcar).

    There are few subway systems in the world which pay for themselves. Last I checked, Tokyo’s was the only one. Subways are indeed expensive for governments to built, but in many cities the benefits outweigh the costs.

    When it’s actually finished, Kunming’s subway will definitely bring benefits. It will make life easier for those who live in the distant suburbs. It will possibly take some cars off the streets once people realize how convenient it is.

    The big fiasco here isn’t that the costs have ballooned, it’s that the budget was forecast so low to begin with.

    The deeper problem I’m worried that the subway won’t correct is one you touched on…that driving is more a cultural thing than a transportation mode. Even when the subway is faster and cheaper and more convenient, many Kunmingers will still choose to sit in traffic in their cars because it’s what they think “successful, modern” people do.

  2. The U-Bahn in Berlin opened in 1902, 22 years before the S-Bahn. There were streetcars, but they can not run at the same speeds as vehicles on dedicated tracks for obvious reasons.

    The problem with the metro construction is that you create the idea that cars have right of way. Everything else needs to go underground. Already now, ‘sidewalks’ (the world alone indicates inferiority) in Kunming are hardly enough to accommodate pedestrians.

    Such a mentality and the idea of pedestrian inferiority will IMHO increase car usage and perpetuate the problem – and by result get fewer people riding the metro.

    What Kunming really should do, is discourage car ownership, encourage cycling (as I pointed out, there are few cities so perfectly suited for cycling as Kunming) and leave the buses running as they did – perhaps replacing them with cleaner variants.

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