Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning Zhenhua Chen has published High Speed Rail and China’s New Economic Geography: Impact Assessment from the Regional Science Perspective, along with co-author, Kingsley E. Haynes at George Mason University. The book is part of Edward Elgar Publishing’s New Horizons in Regional Science series.
High Speed Rail and China’s New Economic Geography presents an analytical approach to assessing the socioeconomic impact of high speed rail in China, with an emphasis on capturing the spatial spillover effects of rail infrastructure development on China’s economic geography in terms of land use, housing market, tourism, regional disparity, modal competition, the economy and environment.
The assessment involves a multilevel spatial analysis approach at both the national and the regional level. The methods include partial equilibrium analysis characterized by a spatial econometric modeling and the state-of-the-art computable general equilibrium modeling.
The Knowlton School interviewed Professor Chen to discuss his research on the release of his new book.
In terms of policy decision-making and operational considerations, what impacts could arise from your research findings for future transportation planning and development?
With the rapid development of transportation technologies and the increasing demand for intercity travel, high-speed rail (HSR) has received unprecedented interest in many countries in recent years. While many countries are still investigating the long-term tradeoff between the benefits and the costs of a HSR system, China has already built over 22,000 km of passenger-dedicated HSR during the period 2004–17. The system, which now consists of eight east-west bound trunk lines and eight north-south bound lines with a top operating speed of 350 km/h, has significantly reduced the space-time travel relationship between major urban agglomerations.
The objective of my research is to provide a valid and comprehensive understanding of HSR’s impact on subject matters such as China’s economic geography and spatial and competitive structure. Such an understanding will help both the public and the decision makers better appreciate the merits of the existing investment and help to assess how the effectiveness and efficiency of future infrastructure development could be improved. This is particularly relevant to the One Belt One Road Initiative, which although imbedded in international relations is centralized around infrastructure development. In addition, an understanding of the impact of the HSR system on China’s spatial economy may also benefit other countries with a similar system or with plans to build such a system.
Can you briefly explain how high-speed rail in China has affected economic disparities between regions within the country?
One of the major findings of this book is that the HSR in China has a positive impact on promoting regional economic convergence, which suggests that GDP per capita in less developed regions tends to grow faster than developed regions due to the influence of HSR. From a socioeconomic perspective, the massive approach to rail infrastructure investment in China during the past decade could be considered a success, especially in terms of achieving the goal of promoting coordinated regional development as outlined in the original development plan. HSR acts as a unifying element in the geography and economy of China in the same way as the Transcontinental Rail and the Interstate Highway system in the United States.
However, one should also note that the result does not imply that the leapfrog development of rail infrastructure should be implemented continuously and aggressively in the future. After all, a positive outcome from a socioeconomic perspective does not necessarily indicate success from other perspectives. In fact, as revealed in our previous book, since the financial sources for HSR development mostly came from bank loans and railway bonds, the massive deployment of HSR infrastructure has substantially increased both the short-term liquidity risk and the long-term debt crisis of the Chinese Railway Corporation. Hence, future HSR planning should be implemented in a more cautious manner.
This is your second book that delves into Chinese railways. I am curious how your interest to research the impacts and promise of rail transportation developed.
Ah, this is a very interesting question! First, I am a rail fan since I was a kid. I still collect model trains and play with them with my kids, as well. Therefore, I really enjoyed doing research that is related to my hobby. Second, the focus on Chinese railways is essentially motivated by a personal experience during my early age in China. Since I had to ride long-distance trains to attend colleges, the hardship of those intercity passenger train trips especially during peak seasons is something that I could never forget. I also made up my mind that I would like to contribute to the rail system so that train travel could become a truly convenient and enjoyable experience someday in the future. Fortunately, it did not take too long before my wish became a reality. The massive development of the HSR since 2004 has reshaped not only the world’s impression of railway travel, it also transforms passenger rail travel experience fundamentally.
However, despite of the achievement of establishing a gigantic HSR physical infrastructure network, critical questions remain unanswered. Does the deployment of HSR promote regional and social equity? Is the system sustainable with respect to economics, finance, operations and societal impacts? What are the emerging institutional challenges and how should these challenges be appropriately addressed?
Therefore, my first HSR book was primarily written to clarify these questions. The objectives were to introduce the Chinese railway system to the international audience and analyze critical concerns regarding the Chinese railway operation, management, and institutional structure. However, given that the development of the Chinese HSR system is so rapid and transformative, a valid and comprehensive understanding of HSR’s impact on subject matters such as China’s economic geography and spatial and competitive structure remains essential.
Hence, my second HSR book is written for such a purpose, as I believe that a valid understanding will help both the public and the decision makers better appreciate the merits of the existing investment and help to assess how the effectiveness and efficiency of future infrastructure development could be improved.