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Shanghai's subway system moving ahead at full throttle

Urban rail service may soon become largest in world

By 2020, the Shanghai subway system is expected to include 22 lines and hundreds of stations. The system would stretch about 560 miles and serve more than 12 million people a day. By 2020, the Shanghai subway system is expected to include 22 lines and hundreds of stations. The system would stretch about 560 miles and serve more than 12 million people a day. (EUGENE HOHIKO/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

SHANGHAI - In 1990, Shanghai was a poor, decaying post- colonial metropolis shaking off decades of economic stagnation. Its streets were congested, too - with bicycles.

But Shanghai decided to build a subway system, and today, the city is on its way to owning the largest urban rail mass-transit system in the world.

You can't walk very far in a straight line in Shanghai these days without coming across construction of a new subway line or station. Already, Shanghai has opened five subway lines and 95 stations serving 2 million people a day. As many as six more lines are scheduled to open in the coming years.

Sometime in the next decade, Shanghai's subway system probably will surpass the world's largest and busiest systems, those in New York, Moscow, and Tokyo.

In fact, transit analysts say, only one thing short of disaster could prevent Shanghai from having the world's largest subway system: the very real possibility that another Chinese city - Guangzhou, Beijing, or Chongqing - could build an even larger one.

In all, 36 Chinese cities are building rail-based public transit systems, said Zhang Jianwei, president of Bombardier China, the Chinese arm of the Canadian company that has supplied rail cars to Chinese cities.

What explains this frenzy of infrastructural one-upmanship?

China's economy is booming. Its people are moving from the countryside into cities as part of the greatest human migration in history. Car ownership is growing explosively. And the government has decided that it needs to do something about congestion before its busiest cities grind to a standstill.

China seems little hindered by the pressures that plague transit projects in the West.

For example, financial woes sandbagged New York's Second Avenue subway for about 80 years until ground was broken this spring. In Los Angeles, the subway system has been constricted by environmental, political, and financial pressures.

In China, labor is cheap, the land belongs to the government, air pollution is the primary environmental concern, and political pressure moves largely in one direction - from the Communist Party leadership on down.

"If the government wants to do something, even if the conditions are not ready for it, it will be done," said Zheng Shiling, a Chinese architect who teaches at Tongji University in Shanghai.

The system essentially works like this: Planners draw subway lines on a map. Party officials approve them. Construction begins. If anything is in the way, it is moved.

If they need to, Chinese planners "just move 10,000 people out of the way," said Lee Schipper, a transportation planner who has worked with several Chinese cities as director of research for Embarq, a Washington-based transportation think tank. "They don't have hearings."

Yu Jifong understands all this from personal experience. For 25 years, the Shanghai native lived in an apartment that sat on the site of a future subway station, part of what will be Shanghai's 10th subway line.

Not long ago, Yu got a notice that she would have to move. In July, she settled into a new apartment miles away, in a development housing the more than 1,100 families displaced by Line 10. Many others accepted compensation that would help them buy apartments elsewhere.

What is striking in Shanghai is how few people seem to mind this upheaval, in part because the city has dramatically improved the compensation it provides to dislocated people and businesses, and in part because residents accept the idea that the subway represents the greater good for the city.

With a population of more than 20 million people, and more arriving every day, Shanghai is an urban planner's dream and nightmare.

Its streets strike a visitor as a free-for-all, a mad crush of people and bicycles and motorcycles and cars, all swooping in and out, sometimes at breakneck speeds, seemingly missing each other by millimeters, except when they don't.

The amazing thing is that, generally speaking, it all works.

It won't work forever, though, as cars replace bicycles and the population continues to increase. The city is banking on the subway system to serve as a pressure valve for congestion.

At the moment, Shanghai's five subway lines, if laid end to end, would run about 80 miles. By the end of this year, that figure should be 125 miles; by 2010, it is expected to double to about 250 miles.

Plans call for a system that, by about 2020, would resemble a spaghetti bowl, with 22 lines and hundreds of stations. The system would stretch about 560 miles and serve more than 12 million people a day.

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