China's Ascent in World Transport

China's Ascent in World Transport
May 21, 2014

Wendell Cox

Wendell Cox is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute; a consultant to public and private... (read full bio)

After years of closing the gap with the United States, China  built enough freeways in 2013 to amass the greatest length of freeways in the  world. Between 2003 and 2013, China expanded its national expressway system,  with interstate (motorway in Europe) standard roadways from 30,000 to 105,000  kilometers (18,000 to 65,000 miles). This compares to the 101,000 kilometers (63,000  miles) in the United States in 2012. China's freeway system is also longer  than that of the European Union, which was 70,000 kilometers in 2010 (43,000  miles) and Japan (8,000 kilometers or 5,000 miles) as is indicated in Figure 1  (Note 1). The ascent of China is evident across the spectrum of transport data,  both passenger and freight.

A review of transport statistics in the four largest world  economies (nominal gross domestic product) shows considerable variation in both  passenger and freight flows. It also reflects the rapid growth of China.  Generally comparable and complete data is available for the European Union, the  United States, China and Japan.

Passenger Travel

All four of the world's largest economies rely principally  on roads for their passenger transport. The United States continues to lead in  road volume (in passenger kilometers, see Note 2) by a substantial margin, followed  by the European Union. In the United States, automobiles account for 83 percent  of domestic passenger travel, which compares to 76 percent in the European  Union and 58 percent in Japan. China's combines automobile and bus data, which  makes it impossible to obtain automobile comparisons with the other three  economies.

Road travel increased more than 150 percent between 2003 and 2013 in China. Yet roads have barely held their market share as China has built new world-class airports, such as Capital City in Beijing, Baiyun in Guangzhou and many others. Over the same 10 years air travel has increased 350 percent. Meanwhile, China has built the world's most extensive high-speed rail system and has experienced healthy rail travel growth. Yet, despite this, passenger rail's market share has dropped from 35 percent to 29 percent over the period (Figure 2).

A review of transport statistics in the four largest world  economies (nominal gross domestic product) shows considerable variation in both  passenger and freight flows. It also reflects the rapid growth of China.  Generally comparable and complete data is available for the European Union, the  United States, China and Japan.

Passenger Travel

All four of the world's largest economies rely principally  on roads for their passenger transport. The United States continues to lead in  road volume (in passenger kilometers, see Note 2) by a substantial margin, followed  by the European Union. In the United States, automobiles account for 83 percent  of domestic passenger travel, which compares to 76 percent in the European  Union and 58 percent in Japan. China's combines automobile and bus data, which  makes it impossible to obtain automobile comparisons with the other three  economies.

Road travel increased more than 150 percent between 2003 and 2013 in China. Yet roads have barely held their market share as China has built new world-class airports, such as Capital City in Beijing, Baiyun in Guangzhou and many others. Over the same 10 years air travel has increased 350 percent. Meanwhile, China has built the world's most extensive high-speed rail system and has experienced healthy rail travel growth. Yet, despite this, passenger rail's market share has dropped from 35 percent to 29 percent over the period (Figure 2).

China is dominant among the four economies in passenger rail  volumes, with its 1.05 trillion annual passenger kilometers (0.65 trillion  passenger miles) accounting for more than 2.5 times the rail travel in both the  European Union and Japan. US rail travel is no more than 1/20th that of China (equal  to the road travel volume in the state of Arkansas).

The United States continues to lead in a domestic airline  travel, with a volume approximately 60 percent greater than those of the  European Union and China. China trails the European Union by only two percent  and with its growth rate seems likely to assume the second position before long  (Figure 3).

Passenger travel market shares are indicated in Figure 4.

Freight Transport

After having led the world in rail freight volumes in recent  decades, the United States has recently yielded the title to China. In 2013,  China moved nearly 3 trillion tonne kilometers (Note 3) of freight by rail,  compared to the US total of 2.5 trillion (2012). It may be surprising to find  out that Europe, with its extensive passenger train system moves so little of  its freight by rail. However, the European Union moved approximately 60 percent  less of its freight by rail. However, much of the capacity of the EU's rail system is  consumed by passenger trains, leaving little for freight.  This is despite a policy commitment in the EU  to substantially increase the rail freight market share relative to trucks. As  a result, in Europe, the freight trains are "on the highway" (see  Photo below). China has been uniquely successful among the world's economies in  developing both a world class freight rail system and a world class passenger  rail system. One of China's early objectives in developing its high speed rail  program was to free space for its large freight train volumes.

Caption: Trucks on the A7, north of Barcelona (by author)

Among other nations, only Russia can compete with China and  the United States in rail freight, having moved approximately 2.2 trillion  tonne kilometers in 2012.

Rail freight remains by far the most important in the United  States compared to the other three largest economies. Rail freight continues to  carry more tonne kilometers in the United States than trucks. The situation is  much different in Europe, where trucks carried four times the volume of freight  rail. Rail freight is even less significant in Japan, where trucks carry more  than 15 times the volume of rail freight.

One possibly surprising fact lies with the substantial  increase in China's truck volumes over the last decade. China now has a volume  of truck traffic that is four times that of trucks in either the European Union  or the United States.

In 2003, trucks carried 60 percent less of the nation's  metric tonne mileage than freight rail. By 2013, that had been reversed with  tracks carrying 130 percent more volume than freight rail.

However China's dominance is even greater in water borne  freight, at nearly 6 times the European Union volume and more than 10 times the  volume of the United States (Figure 5). Even so, China's largest freight  volumes are carried on waterways, such as the Yangtze River. Over the past 10  years waterway volumes tripled. It is even expected that there will be a  significant increase in shipping on the ancient Grand Canal (Figure 6).

Freight market shares among the major modes are shown in Figure  7.

Caption: Trucks on the A7, north of Barcelona (by author)

Among other nations, only Russia can compete with China and  the United States in rail freight, having moved approximately 2.2 trillion  tonne kilometers in 2012.

Rail freight remains by far the most important in the United  States compared to the other three largest economies. Rail freight continues to  carry more tonne kilometers in the United States than trucks. The situation is  much different in Europe, where trucks carried four times the volume of freight  rail. Rail freight is even less significant in Japan, where trucks carry more  than 15 times the volume of rail freight.

One possibly surprising fact lies with the substantial  increase in China's truck volumes over the last decade. China now has a volume  of truck traffic that is four times that of trucks in either the European Union  or the United States.

In 2003, trucks carried 60 percent less of the nation's  metric tonne mileage than freight rail. By 2013, that had been reversed with  tracks carrying 130 percent more volume than freight rail.

However China's dominance is even greater in water borne  freight, at nearly 6 times the European Union volume and more than 10 times the  volume of the United States (Figure 5). Even so, China's largest freight  volumes are carried on waterways, such as the Yangtze River. Over the past 10  years waterway volumes tripled. It is even expected that there will be a  significant increase in shipping on the ancient Grand Canal (Figure 6).

Freight market shares among the major modes are shown in Figure  7.

Caption: Trucks on the A7, north of Barcelona (by author)

Among other nations, only Russia can compete with China and  the United States in rail freight, having moved approximately 2.2 trillion  tonne kilometers in 2012.

Rail freight remains by far the most important in the United  States compared to the other three largest economies. Rail freight continues to  carry more tonne kilometers in the United States than trucks. The situation is  much different in Europe, where trucks carried four times the volume of freight  rail. Rail freight is even less significant in Japan, where trucks carry more  than 15 times the volume of rail freight.

One possibly surprising fact lies with the substantial  increase in China's truck volumes over the last decade. China now has a volume  of truck traffic that is four times that of trucks in either the European Union  or the United States.

In 2003, trucks carried 60 percent less of the nation's  metric tonne mileage than freight rail. By 2013, that had been reversed with  tracks carrying 130 percent more volume than freight rail.

However China's dominance is even greater in water borne  freight, at nearly 6 times the European Union volume and more than 10 times the  volume of the United States (Figure 5). Even so, China's largest freight  volumes are carried on waterways, such as the Yangtze River. Over the past 10  years waterway volumes tripled. It is even expected that there will be a  significant increase in shipping on the ancient Grand Canal (Figure 6).

Freight market shares among the major modes are shown in Figure  7.

India

Another of the world's largest economies, India, also relies  heavily on roads. According  to the World Bank 65 percent of the freight and nearly 90 percent of  passengers are carried by roads in India, though late detailed data is not  available. Yet India also has the largest passenger rail usage in the world.  Only China is close, and the two nations have been near equal, at least over  the last decade. In 2003, China trailed India by seven percent in passenger  kilometers by train. Complete Indian Railway data for 2013 is not yet  available. However, if the average trip length in 2013 was the same as in 2012,  China will have moved to within two percent of India's passenger rail volume. Both  nations are far above Japan and the European Union, ranked third and fourth,  and almost 90 percent above Russia, which has a reputation for high passenger  rail volumes.

The Future

With economic growth in China slowing (though still at rates  that would satisfy virtually any other nation) its transport growth of the past  decade seems likely to moderate. On the other hand, the other large emerging  economy, India, which has substantially trailed China, could assume a Chinese  trajectory. The newly elected Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is  committed to economic advance and infrastructure development. Market  facilitating policies like those that have propelled China (see the late Noble  Laureate Ronald Coase and Ning Wang, How China Became Capitalist), could  lead to a similar story about India in a decade or two.

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Note 1: The latest data on international transport varies by  year, even within nations (such as the United States). This analysis compares  the latest data, which is 2012 (Europe and Japan), 2013 (China) and the United  States (2011, with some 2009). This latest years available permit comparing the  general scale of differences and, particularly in the United States, changes  from the earlier data are likely to have been modest, as a result of the Great  Financial Crisis and the great economic malaise that has followed. The  principal data sources are the Bureau of Transportation Statistics in the  United States, the National Bureau of Statistics in China and Eurostat for the  European Union and Japan.

Note 2: A passenger kilometer (or passenger mile) is the  distance traveled times the number of passengers. Thus, a car going 5 kilometers  with one passenger produces 5 passenger kilometers. With two passengers, there  are 10 passenger kilometers.

Note 3: A tonne kilometer is a metric tonne (2.204 pounds or  1,000 kilograms) of freight times the number of kilometers traveled. The US ton  (short ton) has 2,000 pounds or 907 kilograms.

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Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an  international public policy and demographics firm. He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability  Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on  the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles  County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and  county leadership as the only non-elected member. He was appointed to the  Amtrak Reform Council to fill the unexpired term of Governor Christine Todd  Whitman and has served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National  des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.

Photograph: Grand Canal in Suzhou (by author).

Wendell Cox

Wendell Cox is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute; a consultant to public and private... (read full bio)