Long-Distance Travel Shows Slow, Steady Growth ...

Lower annual economic growth has led to only modest growth in demand for HSR and air travel. The HSR network has been built out to about 12,500 miles of track, and it serves about 2 million riders per day, about 50 percent more daily riders than it carried in 2013. The government's continued reliance on investment meant that plans for the full HSR network were carried out, even as demand failed to reach projected levels. Most of the Chinese population still cannot afford tickets; although HSR tickets generally cost less than airline tickets, they are still more expensive than regular train tickets. Air travel has seen a similar rate of growth: steady but not spectacular. Some attribute this to China's aging population, an immense group who travel less than younger people.

One outcome of this steady growth for both HSR and air travel is that some airlines have begun working with the Ministry of Transport to carry some potential air travelers by rail instead. Such integrated air-rail service means that, even when a customer books an airline ticket, part of the trip takes place on rail through cooperation between the airline and the rail services. This has helped airlines make up revenues they might otherwise have lost to rail. The climate legislation made air travel more expensive because it is less energy-efficient than rail for long-distance travel (and both are preferable to cars).

Along with Transit and Nonmotorized Travel

The largest cities have continued to invest in transit systems, particularly heavy rail. City officials had hoped that the investment would stimulate the economy. Although it provided only a modest boost, it has definitely increased ridership, and these expanding modern systems have attracted plenty of demand, even from so-called choice riders—that is, those who own cars but are willing to ride high-quality transit where it is available. These cities have also been active in promoting transit-oriented development, building apartment buildings and office towers within walking distance of new rail stations.

The same pattern holds true for nonmotorized infrastructure—the largest cities have made major investments that have paid off in terms of increased usage. The most successful of these made a point to increase the convenience of bike-sharing, provided off-street trails, and made streets more amenable to bicycling and walking. Between government encouragement of transit, bicycling, and walking, mode shares for cars in a few cities have even leveled off, rather than continually increasing. This has been good for air quality, although congestion is still a problem.

Other cities have made similar investments, hoping for an economic boost, but with less success. Some ambitious projects stalled in the last 2010s with the economic slowdown and crises in municipal finances, and are only now being completed. Other investments were poorly made—rail systems that were hard to access on foot from residential areas and bicycle lanes without parking enforcement that were all but impassable for cyclists. In these cities, residents still prefer to purchase and drive cars when they have the financial means, and they avoid other modes if they can.

Opportunities and Challenges Lie Ahead

After a few fairly rough years, China is well-positioned to enjoy continued growth, although of course not at the same pace as before the crisis. Environmental problems continue to be a drag on the economy, and progress toward ameliorating the more-serious problems is slow. The effects of climate change might continue to be felt in coastal areas and represent a continuing challenge because so much of the population lives near coastlines.

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