While we may marvel at the speed and alacrity with which China has expanded its high speed rail network, its progress in road building has been even more impressive. In 2012 and 2013, China opened more than 10,000km of new expressway (motorway) each year and this year already more than a further 8,000km has been opened.
This takes the total expressway length to over 100,000km, or considerably more than the United States’ Interstate highway network at some 77,000km (and dwarfing Great Britain’s motorway length of less than 4,000km). This new network of major Chinese roads has been created from scratch in just 26 years so far – a shorter time than the US interstate network where construction started in 1956 and was declared substantially complete in 1992, some 36 years after it commenced.
Interestingly, the genesis of the idea for the huge US road building programme was sparked in 1919 when in the shadow of the First World War, the US government ordered a military convoy to cross the nation, as a test for its resilience in defending itself against invasion. This convoy included some 80 trucks and 300 men, including a Lieutenantt Colonel Dwight D Eisenhower of the Tank Corps. The trip from Washington DC to San Francisco took about two months and the convoy was involved in 230 road incidents and broke (and repaired) some 88 wooden bridges on its voyage. Hence Eisenhower, having gone on to witness the German autobahns during the Second World War, was instrumental as President in passing at the height of the Cold War the “National Interstate and Defence Highways Act” of 1956, which set off that great orgy of infrastructure construction – whose legacy today is much more visible in having united a nation and promoted its trade than in being used as a vital asset for defence.
Infrastructure provision in the UK has always been created on a patch and mend basis – hopefully just in time, or more often just too late, rather than the creation to a complete national vision as was the case for the US Interstate Highway network where a complete network was proposed from the outset, or likewise for the Chinese with their auspicious “7918” plan – (racing ahead to be eventually composed of a grid of seven radial expressways from Beijing, plus nine north-south expressways and 18 east-west expressways).
From these accounts, some predictions and conclusions can be reached:
In about 50 years time, just like the US is now, the Chinese will face an enormous bill to upgrade and overhaul its ageing infrastructure and replace its worn-out bridges, unless it takes regular maintenance more seriously.
National leaders take infrastructure provision more seriously if they see a bigger picture and can be sold towards its wider uses. Would Eisenhower have taken the need for the vast programme of investment needed to create the Interstate highway system if he hadn’t spent those two months inching his way across his country? A crisis is a great spur for an investment programme.
A plan for national infrastructure is a great way to harness a nation together towards a common goal. That plan should be a complete vision rather than a shopping list of projects that need to be done soon.
And perhaps the Chinese leadership will eventually find that those infrastructure ties that bind their nation may do more to unite the country than they ever would have dreamed.
- Tim Chapman is Infrastructure director at Arup