Decentralized Growth and "Interstate" Highways in China

Andrew Batston of The Wall Street Journal writes of China's decentralization, with the growing employment in interior urban areas. Until the last decade, most of China's spectacular urban population and employment growth had occurred on the East Coast, especially in the world's largest megaregions of the Pearl River Delta (Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Dongguan-Guangzhou-Foshan-Jiangmin-Zhongshan-Zhuhai-Macao), the Yangtze Delta (Ningbo-Shaoxing-Hangzhou-Shanghai-Suzhou-Wuxi-Changzhou-Nangjing) and Beijing-Tianjin. Millions of migrant workers had traveled to the East Coast from the interior to take jobs paying far more than they could earn at home.

But that has changed. Industrial production and jobs have expanded substantially in the interior, making it possible for people to take jobs closer to home, in Chongqing, Chengdu, Xian, Changsha, Wuhan, Shenyang, Taiyuan and many more urban areas. This is a fortuitous development, because the mega-regions are already sufficiently populated and could have well grown far larger if the interior development had not taken place.

However, jobs have become more plentiful in the interior. China's growing US interstate standard expressway (freeway) system has been an important contributor to this development. Like the US system, there are no grade crossings and all roadways have at least two lanes of traffic in each direction.

Now, a number of interior urban areas are now within a day's truck drive of the East Coast ports and those that are not are within two days. According to China Daily, the 65,000 kilometers (over 40,000 miles) of the national expressway system is open. This does not include extensive provincially administered systems, such as in Beijing, where four full freeway ring roads are open and a fifth is at least half complete (Beijing has six ring roads, but the first is not a freeway). Shanghai has an extensive locally administered freeway system, as do some other urban areas.

By comparison, the US interstate system is approximately 46,000 miles (this excludes 1,000 miles of 2-lane interstate designated conventional highway in Alaska), and a total of 57,000 miles including non-interstate freeways. China is expected to displace the United States in freeway mileage by the end of the decade, when plans call for more than 60,000 miles.

Photograph: National Expressway Route G-040 near Taiyuan, Shanxi

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