Why did China choose L.A.'s traffic jams over Manhattan's subways?

Check out these cool photos of China’s soon-to-launch train that will average 217 mph between Wuhan and Guangzhou. These major cities — 663 miles apart — will soon be linked by a 165-minute train ride.

I applaud China’s focus on building cities and high-speed trains, even as I “rail” against their city-clogging and environment-destroying love affair with cars and obscene government spending on new roads.

As an American, I arguably have no standing to criticize China for its cars and roads, but few Americans can realistically survive without cars because we were born into a society already addicted to cars. China had an incredible opportunity to see and avoid the horrible consequences of America’s cars-and-suburbs culture. It could have emulated New York City but is becoming more like Los Angeles.

I can understand how pre-traffic-jam, pre-oil-shock, pre-global-climate-change Americans idealized their sexy new car culture. But — weather aside — Manhattan is a more desirable place to live than L.A., in part because of the convenience of not having to drive two hours to get somewhere. And I see how our cars-and-suburbs culture feeds inexorably on itself, with traffic jams leading to new road construction and new roads encouraging suburban housing and car purchases. Once a country begins driving down that road, it can’t do a “U-turn.”

With the benefit of “hindsight,” China could and should have chosen a wiser path. I wrote a paper in grad school over a decade ago arguing this exact point. The theoretical strength of China’s strong, centralized, one-party government is its ability to make decisions in the long-term public interest, rather than short-term private interest, which is what fuels the relentless cars-and-suburbs frenzy.

So, while I love what China’s doing with trains, I wish it were doing much, much more. And it breaks my heart to see China mindlessly adopting America’s car culture because it will severely accelerate global climate change (and leave its citizens less happy than if China had instead pursued the Manhattan ideal rather than L.A.’s dystopia).

Posted by James on Monday, January 04, 2010