One Big Chinese Lesson for America’s Infrastructure Plan | Bloomberg

David Fickling at Bloomberg writes: One Big Chinese Lesson for America’s Infrastructure Plan It’s not just about laying down tracks for superfast trains. It’s about letting the public sector benefit from increasing land values.

My quotes:

Measures to levy fees on the local property owners, such as the special assessment zones used to finance projects like Seattle’s South Lake Union Streetcar, could in theory have a similar effect. The problem is that the unity of purpose needed to develop larger-scale infrastructure is lacking in the modern U.S., according to David Levinson, a professor of transport engineering at the University of Sydney and former transportation planner in Maryland.

“Transportation decisions are much more fractured” in the U.S., Levinson says. “Property taxes are a local government thing whereas transport infrastructure funding tends to be a state thing. Governments aren’t willing to upend the privileges of municipalities to get infrastructure built.”

That fragmentation also means that spending is too reactive — for instance, repeatedly widening roads to eliminate congestion rather than developing integrated visions for how cities as a whole could function better. “The traffic engineers have more power than the planners,” Levinson says, “and the decision makers drive a car, so they have the view from their windshield.”

Can Chinese infrastructure translate in the U.S.? Photographer: Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg

Job-worker spatial dynamics in Beijing: Insights from Smart Card Data

Recently published:


Beijing Metro
Beijing Metro

  • We evaluated the ratio of jobs to workers from Smart Card Data at the transit station level in Beijing.
  • A year-to-year evolutionary analysis of job to worker ratios was conducted at the transit station level.
  • We classify general cases of steepening and flattening job-worker dynamics.
  • The paper finds that only temporary balance appears around a few stations in Beijing.
  • Job-worker ratios tend to be steepening rather than flattening from 2011 to 2015.

As a megacity, Beijing has experienced traffic congestion, unaffordable housing issues and jobs-housing imbalance. Recent decades have seen policies and projects aiming at decentralizing urban structure and job-worker patterns, such as subway network expansion, the suburbanization of housing and firms. But it is unclear whether these changes produced a more balanced spatial configuration of jobs and workers. To answer this question, this paper evaluated the ratio of jobs to workers from Smart Card Data at the transit station level and offered a longitudinal study for regular transit commuters. The method identifies the most preferred station around each commuter’s workpalce and home location from individual smart datasets according to their travel regularity, then the amounts of jobs and workers around each station are estimated. A year-to-year evolution of job to worker ratios at the station level is conducted. We classify general cases of steepening and flattening job-worker dynamics, and they can be used in the study of other cities. The paper finds that (1) only temporary balance appears around a few stations; (2) job-worker ratios tend to be steepening rather than flattening, influencing commute patterns; (3) the polycentric configuration of Beijing can be seen from the spatial pattern of job centers identified.

Tracking job and housing dynamics with smartcard data | Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (open access)

Recently published:

  • Jie Huang, David Levinson, Jiaoe Wang, Jiangping Zhou, and Zi-jia Wang (2018) Tracking job and housing dynamics with smartcard data  (Open Access) 




This paper uses transit smartcards from travelers in Beijing retained over a 7-y period to track boarding and alighting stations, which are associated with home and work location. This allows us to track who moves and who remains at their homes and workplaces. Therefore, this paper provides a longitudinal study of job and housing dynamics with group conceptualization and characterization. This paper identifies four mobility groups and then infers their socioeconomic profiles. How these groups trade off housing expenditure and travel time budget is examined.



Residential locations, the jobs–housing relationship, and commuting patterns are key elements to understand urban spatial structure and how city dwellers live. Their successive interaction is important for various fields including urban planning, transport, intraurban migration studies, and social science. However, understanding of the long-term trajectories of workplace and home location, and the resulting commuting patterns, is still limited due to lack of year-to-year data tracking individual behavior. With a 7-y transit smartcard dataset, this paper traces individual trajectories of residences and workplaces. Based on in-metro travel times before and after job and/or home moves, we find that 45 min is an inflection point where the behavioral preference changes. Commuters whose travel time exceeds the point prefer to shorten commutes via moves, while others with shorter commutes tend to increase travel time for better jobs and/or residences. Moreover, we capture four mobility groups: home mover, job hopper, job-and-residence switcher, and stayer. This paper studies how these groups trade off travel time and housing expenditure with their job and housing patterns. Stayers with high job and housing stability tend to be home (apartment unit) owners subject to middle- to high-income groups. Home movers work at places similar to stayers, while they may upgrade from tenancy to ownership. Switchers increase commute time as well as housing expenditure via job and home moves, as they pay for better residences and work farther from home. Job hoppers mainly reside in the suburbs, suffer from long commutes, change jobs frequently, and are likely to be low-income migrants.

Observations of Wuhan

After my visit to colleagues at Southeast University in Nanjing, I very fast trained over to more colleagues at the Wuhan University of Technology in Wuhan, another of China’s Furnace cities (so-called because of steel production, or because it is so hot). I spent about three days in Wuhan (and two in Enshi), and at least some of that was spent inside university classroom buildings and hotel rooms, so this is a more limited exploration of the city.

Chinese High-speed train
Chinese High-speed train

HSR Train Ticket in China (Nanjingnan to Wuhan)
HSR Train Ticket in China (Nanjingnan to Wuhan). Train G579, Date 2017-05-26. Time of departure 07:56. Train Car 9. Seat 3c. Cost 205.5 RMB

The high-speed rail in China appeared very efficient and was on-time. The only complaint I have is that the tickets were in Chinese instead of dual-language (i.e. no English), though once you knew how to read a ticket, that sorted itself out. Also unlike the aviation system, there are few international users of the the HSR, and very few English-speaking staff. The trains are apparently speed-limited as an ineffective response to the crash in 2011. This can be thought of as safety theatre as the slower speed is still insufficient for a train to safely brake to a stop under circumstances that might lead to the crash. It supposedly will be uncapped later this year.

Panorama from Wuhan University of Technology

Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, and the conurbation of three older cities (Hankou, Hanyang, Wuchang) is larger than all metro areas in the US except Los Angeles and New York, yet until this post, most of you have never heard of it, or at best have a vague impression, as it only ranks 9th in the Chinese league tables (ranked by urban population). Wuhan is in China’s Midwest heartland, it is an industrial city, centred like Detroit on the auto industry, though more analogous to Chicago in importance. It is a way station on the path from Shanghai to Chengdu (Szechuan) and Tibet, places you probably have more familiarity with.

Map of Concessions Area along Yangtze River
Map of Concessions Area along Yangtze River

I am almost convinced that one other colleague and I were the only westerners in the city at the time of our visit (which may be an exaggeration, but not much), though the University had some exchange students from Middle Eastern countries. I won’t go so far as to say we were the only westerners ever to visit Wuhan, as that is certainly false (my father has been). When we visited Enshi, we were the only ones in the entire very crowded Grand Canyons national park. This is in stark contrast with Beijing and Shanghai.

Wuhan is more polluted and less beautiful than Nanjing. It lacks the ubiquity of streets trees that make much of Nanjing liveable.  It is also seemingly less wealthy, and the people are less well-dressed. It is also growing faster, with a Metro of the same vintage and design as Nanjing. There are coordination issues, as can be seen with the photo of the people’s road agency’s widened street running into a high-voltage power pylon that the people’s electricity utility saw fit to keep unmoved.

The Chinese have what I call a ‘Learned Obliviousness’. When walking across the street, a parking lot, a shared bike path/sidewalk, or even a nominally unshared sidewalk, in China, you cannot hesitate, as that pause will be taken advantage of. Like sharks who must be in continuous motion lest they drown, the pedestrian,, like all vehicles must keep moving. While you as a pedestrian must be aware of your surroundings, you cannot give ground. Everyone is continuously in motion, flowing like the water in a river, where the horn is the basic technology version of connected vehicles “here I am” broadcast, creating a noisy environment.

The most interesting thing I saw was the Concessions area, including the Customs House Museum. I don’t think even people from the Middle East do ‘Righteous Indignation’ better than the Chinese, who are still bitterly complaining about events more than 150 years ago.  The concessions were the result of the Opium Wars, where as the Customs House Museum more or less explains, the dastardly British and their inhumane need for addictive tea resulted in a trade imbalance they tried to solve by drugging the Chinese with far more addictive Opium, and which the otherwise great Chinese people could not resist due to weak leadership of the Qing Dynasty. This seems reasonably accurate. So as a result of the treaties settling this war and related incursions, the British, the Russians the French, the Germans, and the Japanese (from south to north) received concessions in Hankow, along the Yangtze River, territory where they could operate with impunity. The British held on until 1929, the others were retaken by the newly Nationalist Chinese earlier. The nationalist revolution came to Wuchang early, though today Wuhan seems a Communist Party stronghold (in contrast with Shanghai and Nanjing at least).

The street in front of the Customs House Museum has become the main high-end shopping street in town, Jianghan Road.

An award winning bus street runs more or less along the western edge of the concessions. While that street has electric buses, the older diesel buses sound asthmatic. More photos of Wuhan can be found here. In some of them you can see the reason behind the local expression “People Mountain, People Sea”.

Along some streets, classical walls were being introduced or restored. I am not sure if the aim is aesthetics, sound proofing, or reducing business for annoying shops.
Along some streets, classical walls were being introduced or restored. I am not sure if the aim is aesthetics, sound proofing, or reducing business for annoying shops.

The modern Wuhan Metro

Observations of Transport and Land Use in Nanjing

Everything you have ever read about the rapid change in China understates the case. China is hotter, more polluted, and more crowded than ever, as famed taxi-driver interviewer Tom Friedman might say.  Despite (or because of) this, Chinese have a surprising amount of money. The upper and middle class are increasingly large and well-off. In larger cities like Nanjing, the middle and upper classes have what appears close to a European standard of living, but for the pollution levels.  In contrast with its iconic and trademarked communist branding, China is more capitalist than almost anywhere else I have been. The social welfare system is not at western levels, and the disparities  between rich and poor are larger, so despite official reports, one can observe some homeless.

Still, food and services are so cheap, I am not sure “purchasing power parity” really captures it. Real estate, on the other hand, soaks up the profits, and is very expensive in the neighbourhoods with good schools. People seek to be in the most expensive neighbourhood they can afford.

Families who can afford it move to the neighbourhoods with the “best” primary schools, so their children will get into the “best” middle schools, so they will go to the “best” high schools, so they will score well on the national exam, so they will go to the “best” universities. I think “best” largely refers to richest, as schools with the richest kids will have the “best” peer group for later networking, as well as the “best” resources, and score well on the annual standardised exams ranking schools because the kids comes from educated families. The national exam is considered a great equaliser, as rich kids are too lazy to study hard for the exam, and don’t score as well. Admissions to university is done on a quota system, so students are ranked by state, and the top X% of each state get admitted to the best schools (school applications require a high amount of game theory here, as if you don’t get your first choice, your second choice might be full on round two, so you wind up placed lower than if you picked your second choice first).

However, unlike the social services, a huge investment has been made in public works. The subway is first rate, better than anything in North America, and growth suggests it will be more extensive as well. (A GIF of the growth of Chinese metros has been going around, and is well worth viewing). The university I visited in Nanjing (Southeast University) has a brand new campus on an enormous tract of land for future growth. Overall, the museums  are impressive. Feeling guilty at destroying so much of their heritage over the past centuries, the Chinese seem to be rebuilding a lot (the Porcelain Tower, for instance, various Buddhist temples) and preserving what remains.  What can only be called “The Buddha Show” at Niushou Buddhism Mountain competes with the Beijing Olympics opening for grandeur. All the better since they are tourist attractions where you exit through the gift shop.

Traffic in Nanjing is bad, but not Beijing (or Wuhan or Shanghai) level bad. Drivers are aggressive, but so are bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians. The safety rate is worse than Australia or the US, and the statistics don’t capture it, but not as bad as you’d think. And most major roads here have protected bike lanes, which are protected except at the very confusing traffic lights (it seems traffic signals generally have 4 phases: NS Through, NW/SE LT, EW Through, EN/WS LT, and the bike lanes move outside of the car lanes, but there is lots of violations by vehicles, especially non-motorised vehicles). Right-turn on red, across heavy pedestrian, bicycles, and traffic flows is common, and enforcement of traffic laws is largely absent. The only enforcement I saw was against bicyclists going the wrong way down the one-way for bicycles (two-way for pedestrian) shared lane.

Look closely at the traffic lights. What could go wrong?
Look closely at the traffic lights. What could go wrong?


In fact, puzzlingly, right turn vehicles have a green right arrow simultaneously with a green pedestrian phase. This would (or at least should) get a traffic engineer stripped of their license in the US. Alternatively, you might think of it as signal-controlled, temporally allocated shared space. [Which is not at all what the originators of the shared space concept had in mind].

Still given the game of chicken when lane changing or at intersections, I am surprised the crash rate is not higher. I am not surprised that many people at more than one University tell me not to trust the official statistics, though. Basically there are too many lanes for cars (relative to person-throughput, but as I said, they are congested in the peak). On some roads there are lanes for buses. Motorcycles and mopeds use either the motor vehicle lanes or the bike lanes, and bikes and motorcycles park on the sidewalks, so pedestrians walk in the bike lanes with bikes, mopeds, and sometimes motorcycles (including cargo bikes, cargo mopeds, and cargo motorcycles whose loads are often as wide as a truck). There is a lot of honking. Oh, and the high-occupancy vehicle diamond symbol painted on the road apparently means slow down.

Those painted bars, they must be for motorbikes to wait to cross the street.
Those painted bars, they must be for motorbikes to wait to cross the street.

The traffic lights have long cycle lengths, but all have countdown timers on both red and green phases.

Stationless bikesharing. Just park your bike anywhere, and someone will come and get it and ride to the next place. No matter if it blocks pedestrians, and there are no wheelchairs and few blind people to be seen anyway.
Stationless bikesharing. Just park your bike anywhere, and someone will come and get it and ride to the next place. No matter if it blocks pedestrians, and there are no wheelchairs and few blind people to be seen anyway.

Bikesharing is the new hot thing here, it’s everywhere, and apparently all of a sudden in the last year. People get an app, deposit 300RMB and can find a bike anywhere, and leave it wherever they want, no stations required. There are lots of companies doing this, each with different colored bikes. E-bikes are also increasing in popularity, but it is still a smaller mode. Bike parking is still chaotic, and designated bike parking is not standard. Fortunately Nanjing has many street trees, and bike parking between the trees keeps bikes out of the way of pedestrians. If only this was universally adhered to.

Well executed separated paths with trees for protection. The sidewalk is almost wide enough. The line down the middle of the sidewalk is common in China, to help the blind navigate.
Well executed separated paths with trees for protection. The sidewalk is almost wide enough. The line down the middle of the sidewalk is common in China, to help the blind navigate.

Walking surfaces are very uneven, steps are at irregular heights, and tripping seems like it should be common, or maybe that is why everyone is always looking at their feet. The Chinese have historically been good engineers, and though settlement can explain some of the unevenness, I suspect there is a deeper reason, some version of Feng Shui to defeat invading zombie ghosts perhaps?

Also there are food delivery services are everywhere, like Sydney, but more so, and not like most of the US. Mostly bike delivery of course. Standardized lunchtime delivery is getting popular, like in India.

A bike delivery army getting ready for service
A bike delivery army getting ready for service

So much in Nanjing is about relative status, not absolute standards. Rankings matter way more than the US, and the educational system is highly sorted. The advantage of relative vs. absolute status is that the rat race drives productivity which further improves absolute status. The disadvantage is the rat race and the dissatisfaction that ensues.

Tesla is Opening Soon in the most expensive mall in Nanjing. I don't think it is because people want EVs (Electric Vehicles), but because they want EVs (Expensive Vehicles)
Tesla is Opening Soon in the most expensive mall in Nanjing. I don’t think it is because people want EVs (Electric Vehicles), but because they want EVs (Expensive Vehicles)

A collection of Photos about Nanjing can be found here:

Infrastructure and Land Policies

The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy recently publishedInfrastructure and Land Policies: Proceedings of the 2012 Land Policy Conference:


The critical importance of infrastructure in global cities – including new strategies in its development, financing, and maintenance – is examined in the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy’s latest publication, Infrastructure and Land Policies.

The volume addresses energy (electricity and natural gas), telecommunications (telephone and Internet), transportation (airports, railways, roads, seaports, and waterways), and water supply and sanitation (drinking water, irrigation, and wastewater treatment).

More than 50 percent of the global population resides in urban areas where land policy and infrastructure interactions facilitate economic opportunities, affect the quality of life, and influence patterns of urban development.

While infrastructure is as old as cities, technological changes and public policies on taxation and regulation produce new issues worthy of analysis, ranging from megaprojects and greenhouse gas emissions to involuntary resettlement.

Infrastructure and Land Policies, edited by Gregory K. Ingram and Karin L. Brandt, is based on the seventh annual Land Policy Conference at the Lincoln Institute held in 2012, where economists, social scientists, urban planners, and engineers convened to discuss how infrastructure issues impact low-, middle-, and high-income countries.

For urban areas, the challenges of balancing economic growth with infrastructure development, funding, and maintenance are reflected in debates about finance, regulation, and location and about the sustainable levels of infrastructure services.

Infrastructure services have technical and economic features such as economies of scale, externalities, and spillovers from users to nonusers that make many of these services difficult to provide as a normal private good. Because of these attributes, much infrastructure is provided either by public entities or privately with regulatory oversight. Infrastructure also delivers economic and poverty-alleviation benefits when it responds to demand and is provided efficiently.

Recent research is finding that inadequate infrastructure is associated with income inequality. This is likely linked to the delivery of infrastructure services to households, such as direct health benefits, improved access to education, and enhanced economic opportunities.

Because so much infrastructure is energy intensive, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other negative impacts need to address services such as electric power and transport. Bringing the management of infrastructure up to levels of good practice has a large economic payoff, and performance levels vary dramatically between and within countries. A necessary, but so far unmet, challenge is to convey to policy makers and voters that large economic returns can be derived from improving infrastructure performance and maintenance.

I have a Commentary on a chapter in this volume:

  • Levinson, David (2013)
    Commentary on “Infrastructure and Urban Development: Evidence from Chinese Cities”
    by Yan Song. Chapter 2 in Infrastructure and Land Policies: Proceedings of the 2012 Land Policy Conference. Editors Gregory K. Ingram and Karin L. Brandt. Lincoln Institute for Land Policy, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • Gridlock as China begins its ‘Golden Week’ holidays


    From the Telegraph (via AE): Gridlock as China begins its ‘Golden Week’ holidays :

    “When 1.3 billion people all go on holiday at the same time, a little chaos is perhaps to be expected.
    But it was a generous decision by Chinese politicians to grant free road travel, by suspending motorway tolls, that saw hundreds of thousands of drivers spend the first day of the Mid-Autumn Festival on Sunday in gridlock.”

    Old Infrastructure Is Hard Infrastructure

    Matt Yglesias @ Slate: Old Infrastructure Is Hard Infrastructure:

    “So the question is, what’s a mature superpower to do? It’s all well and good for China to go from poor to middle income and build a bunch of new infrastructure. But America’s infrastructure isn’t old out of perversity, it’s old because we genuinely built this stuff a long time ago. And having built it, people shaped their lives—dwellings, commerce, commuting patterns—around the presumption that it would be there. Turning it off temporarily to fix it doesn’t just carry a financial cost, it’s extremely annoying to the people who are hoping to use the infrastructure. Yet at the same time, deferring needed upkeep is very much a kind of false economy.
    You can handle this dilemma better or worse and everything I know tells me we’re not handling it optimally. But a lot of comparisons between the U.S. and newly industrializing Asia, or even between the Northeast and the Sunbelt, seem to me to not adequately recognize that aging physical infrastructure poses an inherent difficulty.”

    Are China’s high-speed trains heading off the rails?

    From WaPo Are China’s high-speed trains heading off the rails?:

    “BEIJING — China’s expanding network of ultramodern high-speed trains has come under growing scrutiny here over costs and because of concerns that builders ignored safety standards in the quest to build faster trains in record time.
    The trains, a symbol of the country’s rapid development, have drawn praise from President Obama. But what began in February with the firing and detention of the country’s top railway official has spiraled into a corruption investigation that has raised questions about the project’s future.
    Last week, the new leadership at the Railways Ministry announced that to enhance safety, the top speed of all trains was being decreased from about 218 mph to 186. Without elaborating, the ministry called the safety situation ‘severe’ and said it was launching safety checks along the entire network of tracks.
    The ministry also announced it would reduce ticket prices to boost lagging ridership and would slow construction of high-speed lines to avoid outpacing public demand.
    With the latest revelations, the shining new emblem of China’s modernization looks more like an example of many of the country’s interlinking problems: top-level corruption, concerns about construction quality and a lack of public input into the planning of large-scale projects.
    Questions have also arisen about whether costs and public needs are too often overlooked as the leadership pursues grandiose projects, which some critics say are for vanity or to engender national pride but which are also seen as an effort to pump up growth through massive public works spending.
    The Finance Ministry said last week that the Railways Ministry continued to lose money in the first quarter of this year. The ministry’s debt stands at $276 billion, almost all borrowed from Chinese banks.
    ‘They’ve taken on a massive amount of debt to build it,’ said Patrick Chovanec, who teaches at Tsinghua University. He said China accelerated construction of the high-speed rail network — including 295 sleek glass-and-marble train stations — as part of the country’s stimulus spending in response to the 2008 global financial crisis.
    Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University and a longtime critic of high-speed rail, said he worries that the cost of the project might have created a hidden debt bomb that threatens China’s banking system.
    ‘In China, we will have a debt crisis — a high-speed rail debt crisis,’ he said. ‘I think it is more serious than your subprime mortgage crisis. You can always leave a house or use it. The rail system is there. It’s a burden. You must operate the rail system, and when you operate it, the cost is very high.’
    Part of the cost problem has been that each segment of the system has been far more expensive to build than initially estimated, which many trace directly to the alleged corruption being uncovered, including a flawed bidding process.
    After the railway official, Liu Zhijun, was detained by the Communist Party’s disciplinary committee, stories began trickling out about how a businesswoman in Shanxi province set up an investment company that took kickbacks from firms awarded contracts on the project.