Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Glimpse of the Future

SHANGHAI — This November, Californians will decide whether to approve funds to build a high-speed rail service connecting the state. Projected to travel in excess of 200 miles-per-hour, the California High-Speed Rail Authority promises that the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles will only take about two hours and thirty minutes.

That trip, of course, is still at least ten years away. But if one wanted a short glimpse of the future experience of high-speed commuting, perhaps Shanghai’s Maglev offers an opportunity.

The Maglev connects Shanghai’s downtown to its international airport about 18 miles away. Topping off at about 265 miles-per-hour, the train can travel end-to-end in about eight minutes. Imagine going from SFO to downtown San Francisco or JFK to Manhattan in that time frame.

As a matter of efficiency, the Maglev is well-integrated with the city’s existing subway system. Passengers can connect to the line from any subway station in the city, and upon arrival at the Maglev transfer station clear signs are posted everywhere showing how to get to the airport.

Many Shanghai locals, however, have questioned the practical value of the Maglev train. As I prepared to leave Shanghai last night, one American expat told me that the “local way” to the airport is to take a taxi to a nearby subway station, where direct airport buses are available for about US$3.50; factor in the short cab ride the total cost is just a little under $7. The Maglev, however, costs about $6, not including the taxi, bus, or subway fares riders need to pay to get to the transfer station. All told, a Maglev trip to the airport could cost well over $10. This is certainly a bargain by American transportation rates, but relatively expensive for China.

Still, quite a few Chinese are indeed excited about the Maglev train. Whenever it pulls to a stop, domestic Chinese tourists can often be seen fighting over the perfect spot for pictures in front of the sleek train. They are awed by what the Maglev train represents: a forward-looking China that provides efficiency and maturity—the idea that their country, too, has come of age.

But to others, the Maglev line, formally called the Magnetic Levitation Demonstration Line, seems to be nothing more than what its name suggests—a demonstration, and a wasteful one at best, offering nothing more than a joy ride for visiting tourists.

Nevertheless, shortly after the Maglev started service, the government announced that it planned to link the rail line to the city’s other airport, Hongqiao. But many residents who lived along the projected route resisted that move. They worried that the line could negatively affect their home values, and environmental concerns—such as noise pollution and the fear of radiation dangers—surfaced as well. As a result, expansion plans have been put on hold.

Despite the domestic concerns, the Shanghai Maglev does offer transportation planners everywhere a possible model of efficient and environmentally-friendly (as compared to more cars) commute. Like the world fairs of yesteryears that showcased the promise of planes and people movers, the Maglev line provides a brief look into a future when trains can compete with planes, and when suburban living can be sustainable. And Shanghai, a city that constantly yearns for the future, is perhaps one of the most fitting places to show it.

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