It’s no secret that the U.S. is way behind the rest of the world in scaling its infrastructure. Now, recent news from China seems to have relegated the U.S. even further back. The South China Morning Post reported last month that “China’s unprecedented railway spending boom,” which has been going on for several years, will last at least another decade and a half. China’s railway conglomerate — the China Railway Group — is state-owned. In August, the Group published a blueprint that calls for another 200,000 kilometers (125,000 miles) of railways by 2035. This will be a stunning 41 percent increase over the status quo.
The object here is development, and although China’s infrastructure boom has long been criticized for its environmental impacts, railway transit complicates this claim (more about that in a moment) and the most obvious impact of railway development has actually been poverty alleviation. For example, high-speed railway was partly responsible for lifting almost 1000,000 residents of Zhangjiakou, co-host of the 2022 Winter Olympics, out of poverty in the last several years.
This isn’t just Chinese propaganda; the World Bank shares the optimism about high-speed rail as an essential part of a model for poverty alleviation. As Martin Raiser — the World Bank’s director for China — recently said, high-speed rail is a game-changer for economic development. It creates “changed patterns of urban development, increases in tourism, and promotion of regional economic growth.”
But such extensive infrastructure investment could never happen in the U.S., right? After all, we’re told that people don’t like mass transit here. That would be discouraging if it were true; but, American voters in both urban and rural areas have, in fact, long expressed a desire for better mass transit. A 2018 survey showed “support for government funding of public transportation encompass[ing] every age group with 93% of millennials, 85% of Gen X respondents, 80% of baby boomers and 61% of seniors in agreement.” The survey also showed support exceeding 80 percent in every region of the country, including places like the Western U.S. with its wide open spaces.
In many ways, support for public transportation is a sleeping giant for political candidates seeking policy platforms that can help poor people, the climate, and those desiring economic revitalization. Collecting such opinions and dialoguing about them is something that political candidates in local and national races should do regularly. Otherwise, it’s easy for candidates to buy into the false narrative that public transportation is unpopular. The long-term trajectory of increased mass transit ridership is shockingly consistent and remains very different from what those opposed to transit funding want us to think. Recent decades have shown massive increases in ridership over time, outpacing growth in the number of miles logged by personal vehicles on the nation’s highways.
This is the kind of information that can be gleaned from, or shared with, voters and campaign supporters using tools like data append services. Candidates can easily reach people who are among the increasing numbers of working class folks who rely on public transportation to get to work. Just as easily, they can reach those concerned with meeting their daily and long-term expenses and who see the advantage of ditching their cars in favor of buses and trains.
Of course, voters are also concerned about the environment. What about the considerable carbon emissions that might come from building more railways and trains? After all, the climate crisis hurts poor people the most. But Raiser also points out that biting the bullet on train development now means potentially large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the future. Mass transit is one of the best ways to meet people’s needs and achieve massive carbon reductions at the same time.