The number crunch: Predicting motorization in China

Some estimates place the number of motorized vehicles in China at 1 billion by 2050 – a number impossible to sustain. Photo by IceNineJon.

China’s dramatic increase in motorized vehicle use has greatly exceeded past predictions. Now, latest estimates suggest that, by 2050, as many as one billion vehicles (excluding electric bikes and rural vehicles) will be on the road in China. This is equivalent to the current total global vehicle population. Can China accommodate this number of vehicles? Will motorization surpass even this estimate?

Experts predict continued growth

In 2004, the IEA SMP model estimated that China would be home to 104 million vehicles in 2010. In 2006, the National Development and Reform Commission offered an alternative prediction—in 2010, China would be home to 55 million vehicles. However, by 2010, government reports suggested an ownership of nearly 200 million vehicles.

Explosive growth over the last decade has made it extremely difficult to make accurate predictions. Daniel Sperling and his colleagues suggest that by 2022, China will have nearly 419 million vehicles. Other experts (ICCT, Tsinghua University and ANL)  forecast that there could be anywhere between 500 million to 1 billion vehicles, leading to a total of 7,000 to 12,000 billion vehicle kilometers traveled (VKT) per year. This translates to approximately 5,000 to 9,000 VKT per person per year.

Massive infrastructure growth

In the past twenty years, China’s network of roads has quadrupled. By 2010, more than 4 million kilometers of road had already been built to accommodate the growing number of cars.  Every year China is adding 350,000 km of road lanes.

Infrastructure experts predict that by 2020, the rate at which roads are built will decrease from 3% to 2%, despite innovations in construction technique. As the highway infrastructure expands, maintenance costs will increase, and even wealthy countries have found it difficult maintain such ambitious rates of road construction. In order to sustain the current momentum, the Chinese government has begun to rely on private actors to shoulder costs. Some reports suggest that China has 70% of the world’s tolled roads. The tolls are among the highest in the world, which has already led to backlash.

How many kilometers of road does China need in 2050?

Taking current road occupancy levels as a benchmark, we can compare IEA’s ratio of current vehicle kilometer travel and road supply availability with the experts’ forecasts for 2050. With this method, we find that by 2050, China will require an additional 20-30 million km of road lanes. This matches estimates for the amount of roads used by the current global population of motorized vehicles: global road supply is around 40 million lane-km, which serves over 1 billion vehicles.

Cost to Chinese Society

Building such a massive road network in China would require huge investments. According to IEA, building one lane-kilometer in China costs 1,200 USD on average. Back of the envelope calculations stretched to the most conservative limits (considering only current construction costs with no escalation and no maintenance cost) shows that  every 10 million new lane-km will cost China 12 trillion USD.  Road requirements of 30 million lane-km would mean a cumulative investment of roughly 36 trillion USD or an annual investment of 900 billion USD.

Yet, the current road construction investment target is around 100-150 billion USD annually.

In terms of land requirement for this infrastructure, the new roads would cover a land area equal to 45 cities the size of Beijing. With land at a premium, growing urbanization, and an unequally distributed population due to complex natural conditions, it would be impossible to build such a massive road network.

Clearly, China cannot physically build such a massive network to facilitate travel. It is physically impossible to accommodate this monumental increase in traffic. Costs for trying to facilitate such travel would be enormous and beyond possible expectations for Chinese society. Yet, China’s motorized vehicle population continues to grow.

Road infrastructure has a permanent impact on the environment – Chinese authorities need to radically alter their perception of vehicle mobility, and take the impossibility of the needed road infrastructure into account when making policies related to car ownership or public transport.  Experts also need to take these realities into account as the make their predictions for future motorization, and consider the prohibitively steep costs of growing car ownership. Unless China begins to adjust to the realities of growing car ownership pitted against impossibly expensive infrastructure growth, the consequences may be extreme. Crippling traffic conditions, such as the 100 km (62 mile) traffic jam in 2010 which lasted for 9 days, could easily become the norm.


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