China's Bullet Trains Creating New Kind of 'Suburbia'
China's new and aggressively expanding High-Speed Rail (HSR) 'bullet train' system is having an unintended consequence: it's proving an economic boon to outlying cities along the line.
A new collaborative study by Tsinghua University in Beijing - considered China's MIT - and the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) has uncovered an unexpected benefit of China's new high-speed rail network: they are creating a new category of suburbia in China.
According to the study's co-author, Matthew Kahn, a professor at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, so-called 'second-tier' cities that fall into a 'sweet spot' of 60-470 miles away from the connecting mega-city, are seeing an economic payoff from workers who can now commute by bullet train into cities like Beijing and Shenzhen when it was simply too far to drive and too close to justify flying commercially. Such second-tier cities include Qinhuangdao, Cangzhou and Yangquan. The author's note in their study that high-speed rail "gives these distant cities big-city benefits without downsides like high housing costs, overcrowding, or air and water pollution."
Siqi Zheng, a professor with the department of construction management and the Hang Lung Center for Real Estate at Tsinghua University in Beijing, observed that, "China's bullet trains facilitate market integration and mitigate the cost of megacity growth."
Kahn points out:
"Bullet trains simultaneously alleviate some of the congestion costs associated with urban growth in the megacities and trigger the growth of the nearby second-tier cities," Kahn said. "With overpopulation in the developing world, there's a concern that megacities are too attractive and could soon be overrun by rural residents moving to urban areas. The bullet trains could act as a safety valve by encouraging people to move to second-tier cities, improving the quality of life in both areas and creating more sustainable growth."
The study discovered that Chinese companies are already starting to relocate to less expensive offices out in these second tier cities. The 'dealmakers' of a business would remain in the mega-city, while other employees could be relocated and only need to make the commute into the city on a weekly or monthly basis. That would have big economic pay-off for the company and employees who could enjoy less expensive housing and living cots.
Part of the purpose of the study was to better understand these unintended consequences in the light of California's plans to build its own HSR system linking San Francisco/Sacramento with the Los Angeles/San Diego mega-regions. In Professor Kahn's view, cities like Palmdale and even Bakersfield would benefit as 'second-tier' cities, along with Modesto, Stockton and Gilroy, the "garlic capital of the world," on the northern end of the line similarly benefiting.
What the study didn't identify was the cost-effectiveness of California's HSR plan. According to the UCLA press report, the authors believe:
"…many of the same side effects seen in China are likely to hold true for bullet trains anywhere."
Last Mile Solutions
What HSR also represents is the opportunity to provide commuters with 'last mile' transportation solutions such as shared station cars like the MIT/GM-developed all-electric Hiriko being built in Spain. Local transit systems would also benefit: subways, BRT systems, and the like. On-demand transit from conventional shuttle and taxi services to vehicles like Rinspeed's MicroMAX 'urban swarm' vehicle will find a role. Finally, there likely be a role for electric-assist two-wheelers, as well as conventional bicycles that can get the commuter from home to the station and from the station to their final destination. It is in these relative short-distance, high-demand, situations where electric-vehicles of all shapes and sizes will come into play, another positive benefit of a well-run HSR system.
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