Transportation Deployment Casebook/Highway System in China

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Road traffic is very convenient and might be the most popular traffic mode we see these days. The best thing for road transportation is that it has a very good accessibility and complete the transportation of either passengers or goods in a way of “door to door”. This flexibility is very good for daily travel in a short distance such as going to work and have a tour in cities. Within a small or medium city, the road network system is usually normal roads and streets. However, such streets do not fit for transportation between cities or across the country. The highway system usually allows vehicles to travel at a higher speed compared to city streets. The highway system in China serves as a connector among cities and the fabric of the entire nation. Both goods and passenger transportation occurred on highway systems. As a substitution for highway transportation, the railroad is the greatest competitor with the highway. Since railway transportation has a lower cost when transporting huge amount of goods in a long distance, highway system does not have an advantage over long-distance goods transportation. As for passengers, the fast growth of high-speed railroad in China brought a nightmare for passenger transportation on highway system since the speed of a high speed rail vehicle can be two times as the speed of a normal vehicle on the expressway, the fastest highway system in China. However, that does not sentence the fall of highway system. With the urbanization continuing all over China, the number of private cars has been growing exponentially. When people possess cars, they tend to use them. So the demand for short distance transportation via highway system keep increasing. For short distance trip, the long duration between railway trains and the poor accessibility of rail systems means it is very hard for railway to win highways at this level. There are also substitution for both passenger and goods transportation besides the railroad. Water transportation is always there for shipping goods and passengers. However, water transportation system has reached its maturity many years ago and have been decaying since then. The problems with water transportation are slow and the dependence on river systems. The inland-water transportation in China mainly happens on the Yangtze River as well as the Yellow River which cannot reach many places such as the northeastern part of China. Also, since transportation by car and train will be much faster than by water, passengers will rarely to choose water transportation expect choosing for fun. The civil aviation is a very important mode that competing with highway transportation. The demand for civil aviation transportation always related to high time value. For example, the transportation of see food and flowers required short travel time in order to keep the value of the goods from falling. Also, a businessman with a high time value which is going to attend a meeting will take a flight to save the time that could be wasted by highway. Civil aviation has the advantage on speed that is very hard for highway and railway to compete with. However, the cost of air transportation is high. Since the value most goods do not have a time value and need relatively cheaper transportation cost to remain a competitive price, highway transportation remain dominant but truly lost many passengers over long distances.

Classification of Highway System in China[edit]

The highway systems can be classified into five classes: Expressway, Class I Highway, Class II Highway, Class III Highway and Class IV Highway. This classification was based on the traffic volume and the function of related highway system. Expressway with four lanes has a capacity of 25,000 to 55,000 passenger car unit per day. Expressway with six lanes should have a capacity of 45,000 to 80,000 passenger car unit per day. Moreover, eight-lane expressway have a capacity of 60,000 to 100,000 passenger car unit per day. Class I highway systems usually have four or six lanes with the capacity of 15,000 to 55,000 passenger car units. Class II, Class III and Class IV highway systems usually have two lanes with a smaller traffic capacity.[1] The main role of expressway systems and Class I highway systems is to connect major cities or important transportation hubs such like Beijing, Tianjin and so on. Others served as connectors between small cities and these hubs. The basic structure of the highway system in China is designed based on a “hub-spoke” concept.


Before 1911[edit]

[2] First, there were people walking and running around, which created the road. Then, in order to reach places much further, there came the horse power. With the invention of wheels and carriage, the need for better roads was perceived. Back very far in the history, there were records of road for carriage 2000 B.C. in ancient China. In early Zhou Dynasty (1066 B.C. to 771 B.C.), a primitive road network was developing with the idea of traffic planning along with prototype of urban planning. In Tang Dynasty (618 A.D. to 907 A.D.) the ancient road network system reached its maturity. The roads were classified into three classes: official road, big road and small road. Post stations were deployed along the official road for people to rest or change horses. The total length of the ancient road network was about 2000 km. Road transportation was the most important traffic mode in ancient China not only within the empire but also between other countries. The famous Silk Road was an on land (there were some route through water transportation which called Silk Road on Water) transportation route from China across the Persia reached the middle-east and the Europe in Early Han Dynasty (202 B.C. to 9 A.D.). The original purpose of such route was to establish a trade relationship with the other countries in order to sell the silks produced in China. This exploration in transportation also aim at disseminate Chinese culture and explore the world like an expedition. This event has a very great impact on the export economics at that time. [3] As a substitution of roads, water transportation was relatively easy since the waterway did not need to be built, at least there was no need to build more waterway at the very beginning. The ancient Chinese took the advantage of the river system in the middle of China and slowly developed an economic mode based on the water transportation. Since the technology cannot build a good bridge over the Yangtze River, water transport also served as a connection of road transportation system which lack the ability to travel through big rivers. Later in the development of water transportation system, the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal was constructed in order to create a north-south corridor on the west-east river network.[4] The water transportation can move many goods which cannot be moved by road transport since the horse power is not strong enough. Large amount of goods transportation had been mainly achieved by water transport for a long time.

Since 1911[edit]

[5] The real highway in China was born at the end of Qing Dynasty and the beginning of Beiyang Government (1912 to 1927). The first highway was the Longzhou-Nakan Highway built in 1908 with a length of 17 km. During the rule of the Chinese Kuomintang government (Republic of China), highway construction became a national project, and the total length was growing rapidly. During the Second Sino-Japanese War, the highway construction was under the combat strategy and served as a tool to benefit the war. The highway built during the war usually had poor quality that leaded to destruction soon after built. The total length of highway by the end of 1946 was 130, 307 km. Since 1946, with the resuming of Chinese Civil War, the highway network was badly damaged. After five years of unstopping war, the total length of highway that can be used was only 75,000 km. After the war, the recovery began, and highway construction again became an important national project and kept being built since then, growing rapidly. However, since the damage on the system, it cannot fulfill the increasing demand of road transportation can lead to traffic jam and frequency accidents. Improvements such as broaden the highway roads were implemented, however, with very little improvement of the situation. The major problems were the growing population, a large number of intersections and the mix of traffic modes (horses, bicycles and cars mixed together). These problems accounted for the low efficiency of the highway network. To solve this problem, innovation need to be done in highway construction. That was when the government begins to build expressways systems. The expressway systems in China is part of the highway system. Though isolated from the Class I to Class IV highway systems, the expressway system serves as a high-speed freeway with a huge capacity and strict management. In China, the biggest problem with highway systems is overloaded trucks. The operators of the overloaded trucks can have a great revenue since the cost per ton of the goods will be lower. However, overloading can be very dangerous and harmful to the road surface. Many accidents happen on highway systems just because the overloading which cause the malfunction of the vehicle itself and the longer time for braking. The good thing about the expressway system is that there are people to test the weights of trucks and try to eliminate the overloading on expressways. Also, the maintenance of the expressway road is much better compared to the rest highway systems. So the transportation condition is pretty good on the expressways. Nowadays, the government of China continue planning more expressways, as well as more normal highways.

Current highway system and planning in China[edit]


The main skeleton of highway system in China is shown in Figure 1. The density is very high in the southeast part of China along the coast. This skeleton was shipped by the reform and opening-up policy in the since 1978. The policy allows trade happens in several cities along the coast that allow them to begin developing. The economics of these cities were developing very fast. Shenzhen, as an example, develop from nothing into a big city in a very short time. The urbanization and indoctrination keep going on along the coast that brought a huge demand for transportation. Another reason for the higher density in the southeast is the geography. The land in southeast is very flat due to the long time eroding of the Yangtze River and the Yellow River. It is much easier to build more highway on this plant land. There are many mountains in the west part of China. At the same time, the altitude of the western part is very high which brought many difficulties in construction of the highway.

Quantitative Analysis: The life cycle of Highways in China[edit]

With the data of the total length of highway system in China, a model can be fitted to estimate the growth of this system. [7] The basic model is

    S(t) = K/[1+exp(-b(t-t0)] [8]

After a set of testing, the value of k here was chosen as 578000 (km). The model fitted by Matlab is following:

General model:

    f(x) = 578000/(1+exp(-b*(x-t0)))

Coefficients (with 95% confidence bounds):

      b =     0.08646  (0.08284, 0.09007)
      t0 =        2052  (2050, 2054)

As in the graph, we can see that the highway system in China is still in the growth phase but reach the k/2 point which means the growing speed began to decrease. We can notice a huge increase of network length in 2005. The growth of the high-level highway was not this shape. So growth might mainly relate to the construction of low-class highways that connect small cities and towns. The accessibility of such small cities and towns increased rapidly during the year. This discontinuity has a negative impact on the model fitting which made the beginning of the model underestimate the total length of the highway network before 1990. After the huge jump in the year 2005, the growth of highway length was slow and steady which shows an almost straight line in the graph. The number of private passenger vehicles, however, has not reached the k/2 yet which means it will keep growing faster and faster. The growing of highway length is slowing down which might not fulfill the increasing demand. The passenger-km of the highway is also below the k/2 and growing faster, too. According to these data, there will be more congestion and lower service level for the highway system in the recent future. In order to change this, a policy of increasing highway construction should be carried out.

Table 1. The Total length of the Highway in China

Year Length(ten thousand km) Year Length(ten thousand km)
1978 89.02 1996 118.58
1980 88.825 1997 122.64
1981 89.75 1998 127.85
1982 90.7 1999 135.17
1983 91.51 2000 167.98
1984 92.67 2001 169.8
1985 94.24 2002 176.52
1986 96.28 2003 180.98
1987 98.22 2004 187.07
1988 99.96 2005 334.52
1989 101.43 2006 345.6999
1990 102.83 2007 358.3715
1991 104.11 2008 373.0164
1992 105.67 2009 386.0823
1993 108.35 2010 400.8229
1994 111.78 2011 410.6387
1995 115.7 2012 423.7508

Table 2. The Private Passenger Vehicle

Year Total(10,000 units) Year Total(10,000 units)
1985 28.49 2001 770.7766
1990 81.62 2002 968.98
1991 96.04 2003 1219.228
1992 118.2 2004 1481.661
1993 155.77 2005 1848.066
1994 205.42 2006 2333.317
1995 249.96 2007 2876.216
1996 289.67 2008 3501.392
1997 358.36 2009 4574.911
1998 423.65 2010 5938.708
1999 533.88 2011 7326.794
2000 625.33 2012 8838.601

Table 3. The Passenger Kilometers for Highway in China

Year Total(100 million passenger-km) Year Total(100 million passenger-km)
1978 1743.1 2000 12261.1
1980 2281.3 2001 13155.13
1985 4436.4 2002 14125.6
1990 5628.4 2003 13810.5
1991 6178.3 2004 16309.1
1992 6949.4 2005 17466.74
1993 7858 2006 19197.21052
1994 8591.4 2007 21592.58086
1995 9001.9 2008 23196.69839
1996 9164.8 2009 24834.94158
1997 10055.5 2010 27894.25662
1998 10636.7 2011 30984.03
1999 11299.7 2012 33383.08889

Figure 2 Total Length of the Highway System
Figure 3 Passenger-Kilometer on Highway

Figure 4 Total Number of Private Vehicles


  1. 公路工程技术标准(Technical Standard of Highway Engineering),中华人民共和国交通部(Ministry of Communications of the People's Republic of China)(2004)
  2. 道路工程第2版(Road Engineering),北京交通大学出版社(Beijing Jiaotong University Press)(2012)
  5. 国家高速公路网规划(Planning of National Expressway Network),交通部规划院(2004)
  6. 国家公路网规划(2013年-2030年),中华人民共和国交通运输部(2013), Planing for National Highway System(2013-2030),Ministry of Transport of the People's Republic of China(2013)
  7. Statistics Year Book 2013, National Bureau of Statistics of the Peoples's Republic of China(2013).中国统计年鉴,中华人民共和国国家统计局