NOT many global cities of nearly 9m people lack an underground line, but until the end of last year the eastern city of Hangzhou was one of them.
Now city slickers and rural migrants squeeze together inside shiny new carriages, checking their smartphones and reading free newspapers like commuters the world over.
There is standing-room only in the rush hour and, with tickets at less than a dollar, the metro is revolutionising the way people travel across town.
Two other Chinese cities—Suzhou and Kunming—have also opened their first underground lines in the past year, and the north-eastern city of Harbin is preparing to open one too. Four more cities have just added a new line to their existing systems. At least seven others have begun building their first lines.
If all the metros approved by central officials are built, 38 cities will have at least one line by the end of the decade, with more than 6,200km (3,850 miles) of track (London has nearly 400km.) As with many infrastructure projects in China, including the high-speed rail network above ground, questions abound about the wisdom and potential wastefulness of such ambitions. Many of the underground systems are needed, but some are being built in cities that are too small to justify the exorbitant expense. By some estimates the total bill could approach $1 trillion, not including the cost of operation.
Zhao Jian of Beijing Jiaotong University reckons that metros in fewer than 20 of the 38 designated cities make sense. He says that perhaps 10 of those could be replaced with cheaper light rail, which runs above ground. The minimum core urban population that can qualify a city for an underground system is 3m people, but even a place that big may find the operating costs crippling. Mr Zhao says the systems in Harbin and Kunming are unnecessary.
Shi Nan of the Academy of Urban Planning and Design in Beijing says it is obvious that “we cannot count on private cars” to get around the big cities. But the metro projects mostly rely on government subsidies, and operating them will be a “bottomless pit”, says Mr Zhao. He says city officials tend to pursue grand projects that may not even make money because they will not be around to bear the burden. The performance of local officials is evaluated on how much they increase local GDP, not on whether projects they build are needed. Today’s leaders get credit for spending money. Tomorrow’s must foot the bill.
Even megacities long overdue for more underground tracks—like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou—are building and operating them at a cost that worries planners. Operating the metro lines of Beijing, now up to 442km of track, has cost about $1.6 billion over the past two years, but passengers pay just 30 cents a ride. The metro has helped to alleviate traffic and pollution, yet Beijing remains one of the world’s most jammed and polluted cities; it needs more investment in public transport of all sorts.
In Hangzhou the underground is just one way to get to work; above ground, fleets of red buses, often in designated lanes, form a Bus Rapid Transit network to beat the gridlock. Critics say cities like Hangzhou should be investing more in these cheaper options above ground. But the metro remains an important part of the city’s future. It plans at least another eight lines.
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