Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Chinese Transportation Growth

The Chinese National Bureau of Statistics has a lot of interesting data.  The web site is hard to use, at least in my browser, but after poking around in the html source of the pages, I've managed to figure out how to get to all the annual data, which let me make some graphs.  I don't know how accurate these numbers are, but here, at any rate, is the official story.

As usual, when reviewing Chinese economic statistics, I strongly recommend that you first arrange for ample clearance below your lower jaw to avoid any risk of accidental injury...

First up, we have the data on total passenger-kilometers by major mode. (One caveat to bear in mind.  These are annual data from 1990 to 2007.  Prior to 1990, there are data points for 1978, 1980, and 1985.  I have made annual plots from 1978-2007, and just used linear interpolation for the data gaps before 1990.)

To get a better sense of the growth rates in that data, here's the five year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for the three major modes:

As you can see, growth rates of railway and highway usage are both very high (the 7% growth corresponds to about a ten year doubling time).  However, it's the airline usage that's really electrifying with over 15% growth over the last decade.  Note also that highway passenger travel will include both buses and personal vehicles, and this combined data likely conceals a significant transition from the one to the other.

Next, there are some data on total length of transportation routes.  (Here the only missing data point is 1979 which I interpolated).  In this next graph, I show the length of railways versus expressways (not all highways, which is a much larger number, just the freeway-equivalent roads):

Clearly, China is becoming increasingly car-centric, versus rail-centric.  For kicks, I also put in the level of the US Interstate Highway System in 2008. As you can see, the Chinese Expressway system is reaching the size of that system and will likely far surpass it soon.  According to the wiki entry:
Design standards for China's National Trunk Highway System are derived from the standards used on the American Interstate Highway System, with Chinese expressway cross-sections, interchange profiles, and bridge designs closely reflecting their counterparts in the United States
The Wikipedia even has a nice map, with blue being expressways in existence, and red under construction or planned.

Looks like they can keep stimulating their economy with shovel-ready projects for quite a while to come...

Also, from the same dataset, here is the breakdown of electrified and non-electrified railroad:

The electrified railroad is increasing very rapidly, but right now, between the rapid growth of private passenger transportation, and the remaining diesel powered railroads, Chinese transportation is probably almost as oil dependent as US transportation (they have pretty much phased out the steam trains now).

Next up, ownership of private vehicles:

Holy Batmobile! That's quite a growth curve!

Still a ways to go to reach US levels of 250m or so.  But with growth rates like these:

it won't take long!  Over the twenty years 1987 to 2007, the compound annual growth rate was 30.8% in the private passenger vehicle ownership rate.  That's the average growth rate.  And it's not like there's a sharp slowdown - 2006-2007 was over that twenty year average. In fact, if you take the decade 1997 to 2007 CAGR of 28.3% (!!), and project it forward then the Chinese vehicle fleet will surpass the US fleet by 2017 or so.

Admittedly it's hard to see such astronomical growth rates continuing for long.  Maybe they won't.  But then, it's hard to imagine them having continued for the last 25 years, and apparently they did.  If you'd said in 2000 that growth was slowing down and certain to slow down more, you'd have been wrong.  And they'd still be a long way from US per capita car ownership at that level, since the population is four times larger.

The world has never seen anything like this Chinese industrial machine.

In summary, if present trends continue, the Chinese expressway system will likely grow larger than the US interstate highway system within the next couple of years, and Chinese car ownership will exceed US car ownership by somewhere in the neighborhood of 2017.  So while the al-Shahristani plan for Iraqi oil production seems like it aims for an extraordinary increase in oil production in a hurry, it's not at all hard to see where all that oil can go.  Oversimplifying greatly, it's as though the US borrowed a pile of money from China in order to fight a war to free up oil supply in Iraq in order that China could become the greatest industrial power the world has ever seen.

Oh, and you can see why China wasn't too keen to strike a deal in Copenhagen.


KLR said...

That's a pretty low figure for private vehicle ownership. Other sources suggested 60-85 million vehicles in 2008; this says nearly 160 million motor vehicles as of Jan 2008. Maybe they're counting electric bikes...the Chinese purchase about 20 million of those per year, too.

China is indeed rocketing. I'm very interested in their potential for an explosively violent popping of their asset bubble, though. Roads to nowhere that are rebuilt for the sake of creating jobs - what is this, Normandy 1944?

Heading Out said...

Having been over there last year I found that it was very difficult to get onto trains without significant advance booking. Construction of roads and rail west of Xian has to deal with the mountainous terrain, but while earlier roads went over the passes there are many tunnels now being driven that will open up parts of the country that have previously been less accessible.

Chinese tourism is also well established and growing and has already reached the point where parking at points of interest can be more difficult.

Stuart Staniford said...

KLR - scooters and motor-bikes are another possible confound. Your link doesn't cite it's source, so it's hard to say.

I don't have an opinion on the China-as-bubble idea. Clearly, given human nature, it would almost be surprising if there wasn't a bubble at some point, but whether there is now, or prices are pretty rational given that the place is being turned into a developed country almost overnight, I couldn't say.

Stuart Staniford said...

HO - so no lack of demand, huh?

Via Big Gav this morning, I see there's a pretty interesting article on Chinese high speed rail at MIT Technology Review.

Stuart Staniford said...

One thing I'm wondering about is this. According to my BP spreadsheet, CAGR for Chinese oil consumption was 6.2%. Plenty high, but nowhere near the growth rate in vehicles. That suggests that, either the vehicle stats are way off, or Chinese oil consumption is transitioning from primarily being driven by slower growing uses other than vehicles, to being driven by vehicles, and the growth rate will increase, a lot.

Stuart Staniford said...

Here's an interesting European Chamber report on Chinese "overcapacity"

porsena said...

The growth in oil consumption does seem low compared to the growth in motor vehicles. China is now the world's single largest market for new vehicle sales, having passed they USA around last February.

However, practical limits to growth in the vehicle fleet seem to be intruding. Beijing reached 4 million vehicles last month but the streets are reported to be near gridlock in several cities. Rising fuel prices are reported to be causing some people to drive less.

If it's hard to reconcile a growth in oil consumption of under 4% with that amazing growth in air and ground transport, the reason might indeed be that the the transportation requirement is being built onto a largely non-transportation base.

Datamunger said...


Teach those Asians mass production?
Teach your grandmother egg suction.
--Robert Frost

Stuart Staniford said...

Porsena - the European chamber report I linked above suggests that utiization of Chinese roads is only 12% of the OECD average, suggesting roads are underutilized rather than gridlocked. Of course the answer could be different in different places

Stuart Staniford said...

Datamunger - pretty funny that the center of the world is I Afghanistan

Datamunger said...

Hee hee. Yes. And not to mention that compared to North Pole, New York is way off the beaten track.

Nice to have such a map based on ship-, rail- and truck-miles (weighted).

Jonathan Callahan said...

Awesome datasource!

Can you give any hints as to how you extracted the annual data?

Michael Dawson said...

This is stunning information. One hears so much about the supposed green-ness of Chinese transport, but this data belie that story.


I noticed that the "ownership" data tables are actually "possession" tables. Shows the shakiness of civil society there.

Stuart Staniford said...


Sure. If you go to


and do "View Source" or whatever your browser calls it. You'll see a whole bunch of list items with links for each type of data, with relative urls like



3-11 Population by Sex, Marital Status and Region (2007)

so then you construct the URL


and you have that data.

I was assuming the website worked in the common browsers and just didn't work in my browser, but maybe it doesn't work more broadly

Getting Around in China said...

This post is long, but please bear with me for a taste from three months ago:

High-speed railroads in China have been in the news: for example, the new "C" route from Shenzhen to Wuhan. Here's my "feet on the ground" view from an important but less-central area: Coastal Zhejiang Province a bit north of Wenzhou, about 200 miles south of Shanghai (I was in this area on business '91-'93, hadn't been back). Last October, I rode my bike around for three weeks visiting places I'd been, trying to find things I could remember. In the past, access to this area was difficult, except from the sea.

Maps: I collected the newest and best I could find, including a fifty-page book map of the province, printed 09/8/11, published 09/4/3 (in China, a six-month old map is already badly out-of-date). Taizhou Prefecture was most interesting to me, showing a new coastal expressway as "under construction", and many other major highways and expressways, but no indication of railways or planned railways. I had the best whole country map, 2.5 x 3.5 feet (dated 09/1/13, China Cartographic Publishing House), and the newest whole-country train schedule book (09/4/1, 418 pages).

In various towns, my first act is always to hunt the newsstands and bookshops for recent local maps. In Wenling, a local map (08/5/3) showed a railway passing twenty km. to the northwest as "under construction" (the vendor said "Oh yeah, it's there"). I biked out north about 25 km. to have a look-see, also visiting villages I'd been in fifteen years earlier. Nearing the station location shown on the map, I suddenly found brand-new access roads not shown on the map, and spotted a large building under construction in the distance. It was an elegant half-completed station with large crews working on landscaping, others hanging granite-slab facing on walls, etc. I climbed up stairs alongside partially completed escalators, and entered a large two-level waiting room with modern toilets, hot water, etc., but few people. I noticed lights on at the platform gate across the room: Wa! Automatic gates, controlled by magnetically coded tickets (I'd never seen that before) when, whoosh!, a train went by. I didn't hear it coming, I didn't hear it going, just "whoosh!". Wow, trains were running!

I wandered around, found a ticket office with eight windows, only one open with a small line of people, and a lady selling photocopied schedules for that station, dated 09/10/15, a few days earlier: It showed fourteen passenger trains stopping there daily, with 26 more passing, altogether twenty trains each direction daily! (no information on freights). A guard told me the first commercial freight had run Sept. 9, the first passenger run Sept 28. I later confirmed these dates with some Internet research. These were all "D" trains, the second-tier high-speed rail, 260 km/hr, intended to average 160-180 km/hr, including stops.

Remember, none of this was on my best maps, or shown in the current schedule book. With a bit more Internet research, I learned that the line was planned to be completed in 2012, but with the infrastructure stimulus, completed in 2009. A huge network of these high-speed lines is planned; how many others have been completed ahead of schedule, I have no idea.

That's the first week; If there's interest, I'll tell about getting a ticket, finding another station on the line (above story, the Ningbo-Wenzhou line, but by the time I got my ticket, the Ningbo-Wenzhou-Fuzhou line, and two months later, the Ningbo-Wenzhou-Fuzhou-Xiamen line. By now, the line is probably open all the way to Shenzhen), and taking a forty-minute ride, getting off at the fourth stop, speed 252 km/hr between each station. The line had been taking passengers for about 35 days by then.

Fred Richardson
Author of "Getting around in China"

Anonymous said...

Dear Stuart. Terrific work. This is very very valuable. I'm in the middle of some writing on India's auto boom (see more here http://makanaka.wordpress.com/2010/01/11/indias-decade-of-wheeled-deities/) and this is an excellent reference as there's just so much of China vs India comparing that takes place in India nowadays. Nice informative post from Fred Richardson too.

Stuart Staniford said...


That's an amazing story...

Mark said...

Porsena, Stuart
Re the apparent discrepancy between China's relatively small oil useage growth and its large vehicle growth. One possibility to explain this might be that China is switching from oil fired electricity gen & other non-transport oil use to cheaper sources (such as coal). This switching might be going on in parallel with the increase in vehicles & their use thus moderating the oil use increase. (Henry Groppe claims that as much as 15 mb/d of oil is used in developing countries for elec gen & non-transport use. http://www.groppelong.com/GLLNews/WordDoc/Henry%20Groppe%20IEA%20to%20blame%20for%20$100%20oil%20spike%20(with%20transcript)%20%20Global%20Public%20Media.htm)