China’s Motorways: The Greatest Scheme You’ve Never Heard Of

By Lewis on 3rd June 2019 - View Comments

If you think about China, a few things probably come to mind. Pandas. Noodles. The Great Wall.

What you probably don’t think of, though, is motorways.

A few weeks ago, we talked about the history of the UK’s motorways – but the Chinese may have us beat for the sheer amount of them.

Up until the 1980’s, the majority of China’s goods were transported by rail. 1988 saw the construction of the first motorway (or “expressway”, as they’re known locally). It connected Shenyang and Dalian, the two largest cities of the Liaoning province. More expressways connecting more major cities followed, and as almost 14% of freight and 53% of passengers began to be transported on the road by 1997, companies were formed to accommodate the growing network.

And grow it did. In January of 2005, then-Transport Minister Zhang Chunxian announced a plan to build a network of 85,000 kilometres of expressways over the next three decades. They appear to be well on track with this, with 142,500 kilometres existing as of 2019. That’s more than any other country.

If you read our earlier post on the history of British motorways, you’ll remember Lord Montagu, and his harebrained scheme to build motorways on top of viaduct-like structures. Though his idea may have ben absolutely untenable for the British authorities, no such issue seems to exist for China.

This, for example, is the Duge Beipanjiang Bridge.                                          

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It’s placed almost 600 metres above the Beipan river; that’s so high up that you could fit two of London’s Shards.underneath it, end-to-end.

Of course, this kind of spectacle doesn’t come cheap. The 1,341-metre structure cost over 1 billion yuan to build – that’s almost 115 million pounds. It and other ambitious expressway projects are funded in various different ways, including vehicle purchase tax and money collected from tolls (China contains around 70% of the world’s tollways.)

The majority of expressways operate on a card system; the card is given to the driver, and the payment is determined by the distance traveled when the driver hands the entry card back to the exit toll gate upon leaving the expressway. However, some motorways charge normal fares, and places Beijing and Shanghai have started to phase in new electronic toll systems.

That might be similar to Britain – but unlike us, China’s motorway building programme doesn’t seem to have slowed down into the 21st century. Since 2011, there have been 6,000 miles of motorway built every year.

No wonder Jeremy Clarkson called China’s road network “the eighth wonder of the world.”

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