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China’s highways are being built at a pace unmatched anywhere in the world since the construction of the US Interstate Highway system in the 1950s. The total length of expressways reached 53,600km by the end of 2007, more than double the total from as recently as 2002.

Despite the huge investment being poured into road building across China, both the quality and extent of the current network leave much to be desired. Expressways and Class I roads currently account for just 12 per cent of the total network, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the rest being of medium to low standard. And with only 1,400km of roads per 1m inhabitants, expressway density remains low, causing serious bottlenecks in urban areas. Today, China’s expressway density per head of population is just one-tenth that of the US and one-sixth that of France.

Meanwhile, with soaring levels of vehicle ownership, the authorities must maintain a frantic road-building effort just to keep pace with this growth.

Under the current national road building plan, the national network will extend to 2.3m km by 2010 and 3m km by 2020, including some 85,000km of expressways. Over the longer term, the target is to have a highway system of some 4m km – double the current figure – by 2050.

At the core of the government’s highway building programme is the 36,700km national trunk highway system (NTHS), the final sections of which were completed in late 2007. The NTHS comprises 12 major highways – five of which are oriented north-south and seven east-west – connecting all provincial capitals and other cities of more than 500,000 people. At first, expressways were designed to have a maximum of four lanes, but growing congestion has forced operators to expand, and many busy urban routes, such as the Shanghai-Nanjing highway, now feature as many as eight lanes.

Among the east-west routes, the most important is the 2,970km Shanghai-Chengdu Highway (also known as GZ55) which connects Shanghai with the provinces of Jiangsu, Anhui, Hubei and Sichuan. Completed in 2004, GZ55 has cut the journey between Shanghai and Chengdu from 37 to 17 hours. Like the other expressways, it is operated as a toll highway.

Having completed most of the NTHS well ahead of schedule, Beijing came up with a new national blueprint in January 2005, known as the National Expressway Network Plan. This network is also known as ‘7918’, a reference to seven capital radials, nine north-south major highways and 18 east-west corridors. The project, which has a total budget of Rmb2,000bn, will see around 85,000km of high-grade expressway built by 2020, and aims to connect all provincial capitals and cities of more than 200,000 inhabitants.

Some 12,000km of the new 7918 network is to be built in central China; even more highways – some 24,000km of them – will be built in the west. This again reflects how road construction in China is shifting from coastal industrial centres to formerly neglected areas in China’s interior provinces. Currently, the west accounts for some 56 per cent of China’s land area, but has only 30 per cent of its roads, most of which are below Class II standard.

Nor is attention in the west focused only on multi-lane expressways. Minor roads have become a renewed priority, with plans calling for the construction of at least 3.1m km of rural highways that will reach every administrative village in the country by 2010. Once complete, the new roads will slash travel times between provincial areas in the same way that the NTHS has done on trunk routes.
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