divendres, 27 de març de 2009

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Clash of Subways and Car Culture in Chinese Cities

Timothy O’Rourke for The New York Times
Digging for the subway expansion in Guangzhou, China, proceeds around the clock, every day.
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By KEITH BRADSHER
Published: March 26, 2009
GUANGZHOU, China — Chan Shao Zhang is in the race of his life.

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Timothy O’Rourke for The New York Times
Workers endure sweltering temperatures in five 12-hour shifts a week.

After four decades of false starts, Mr. Chan, a 67-year-old engineer, is supervising an army of workers operating 60 gargantuan tunneling machines beneath this metropolis in southeastern China. They are building one of the world’s largest and most advanced subway systems.

The question is whether the burrowing machines can outrace China’s growing love affair with the automobile — car sales have soared ninefold since 2000. Or are a hundred Los Angeleses destined to bloom?

And even as Mr. Chan labors to bind Guangzhou together with an underground web of steel, the city is spreading out rapidly above ground, like a drop of ink on a paper towel.

The Guangzhou Metro is just part of a much broader surge in mass transit construction across China.

At least 15 cities are building subway lines and a dozen more are planning them. The pace of construction will only accelerate now that Beijing is pushing local and provincial governments to step up their infrastructure spending to offset lost revenue from slumping exports.

“Nobody is building like they are,” said Shomik Mehndiratta, a World Bank specialist in urban transport. “The center of construction is really China.”

Western mass transit experts applaud China for investing billions in systems that will put less stress on the environment and on cities. But they warn that other Chinese policies, like allowing real estate developers to build sprawling new suburbs, undermine the benefits of the mass transit boom.

“They wind up better than if they did nothing, but it costs them a fortune,” said Lee Schipper, a specialist at Stanford in urban transport.

Mr. Chan defended Guangzhou’s combination of cars and subways, saying that the city built a subway line to a new Toyota assembly plant to help employees and suppliers reach it.

Subways have been most competitive in cities like New York that have high prices for parking, and tolls for bridges and tunnels, discouraging car use. Few Chinese cities have been willing to follow suit, other than Shanghai, which charges a fee of several thousand dollars for each license plate.

The cost and physical limitations of subways have discouraged most cities from building new ones. For instance, only Tokyo has a subway system that carries more people than its buses. The buses are cheaper and able to serve far more streets but move more slowly, pollute more and contribute to traffic congestion.

China has reason to worry. It surpassed the United States in total vehicle sales for the first time in January, although the United States remained slightly ahead in car sales. But in February, China overtook the United States in both, in part because the global downturn has hurt auto sales much more in the United States than in China.

Guangzhou, a city of 12 million people that is also the fastest-growing center of auto manufacturing in China, shows both the promise and obstacles of China’s subway extravaganza.

Mr. Chan helped set up Guangzhou’s subway planning office in 1965, when he was straight out of college. Digging started the next year. But the miners gave up after less than 10 feet when they hit granite.

After that, Mao personally sent China’s finest mining and underground construction experts to oversee the digging. But further excavation efforts failed in 1970, 1971, 1974 and 1979. During and immediately after the Cultural Revolution, Communist dogma, poverty and nationalism forced a reliance on inadequate Chinese equipment.

In 1989, when preparations began for successful excavations, city leaders thought it would be enough to have two subway lines, totaling 20 miles, in an X shape bisecting a tightly packed downtown.

“At that point, it was still mostly bicycles and people walking,” Mr. Chan said. Then, “in the 21st century, the Guangzhou economy really took off.”

Today, Guangzhou has 71 miles of subway lines, most of them opened in the last three years, and yet large areas of the ever-expanding city are still distant from the nearest subway stop.

The city plans to open an additional 83 miles by the end of next year — and an underground tram system and a high-speed commuter rail system. A long-term plan calls for at least 500 miles of subway and light rail routes, and there are discussions on expanding beyond that.

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