Growth of high-speed rail eases commute to China’s megacities

Global Business

High property prices are driving people out of China’s first-tier megacities but high-speed rail is bringing them back.

Based on data collected from Tencent’s location-based services division, China’s megacities are seeing a small but growing number of people living in smaller cities while working in first-tier cities.

The development of faster public transport is the key to this, and the high property prices in cities like Shanghai and Beijing are the main drivers. Will this modern tale of two cities, with people living in one and working in another, continue to grow?

Xu Xinchen reports.

Growth of high-speed rail eases commute to China's megacities

High property prices are driving people out of China’s first-tier megacities but high-speed rail is bringing them back.

Li Chaoyun finished his post-doctoral program in Kunshan, over 55 kilometers (34 miles) away from Shanghai, last year and got a job at a foreign pharmaceutical company’s Shanghai headquarters in downtown Jing’an.

He had to spend a lot of time travelling between Kunshan and Shanghai to get to work and then go home again. But with today’s high-speed rail, he’s able to do that in about an hour each way.

“I take high-speed rails and subways, and that’s not bad since I live near the high-speed train station in Kunshan. In the morning, I do feel pressured by time, but in the evening, going back home late doesn’t bother me much,” Li Chaoyun said

His two bedroom apartment in Kunshan costs under 4,000 yuan a month, half what he would be spending in downtown Shanghai.

Li is not alone in doing the math. According to Tencent, more than 3 percent of people working in Shanghai travel over 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) to work and 1 percent travel over 40 kilometers (24.8 miles) to work. Since Shanghai has one of the world’s largest working populations, those small percentages amount to more than half a million people.

“Based on our data, people who travel longer to work live near railways stations – high-speed trains and subways.  And the majority of them use subways to get to work. There are many living in Kunshan or Taicang, tens of kilometers away from downtown Shanghai. And the trend is growing,” Liu Chang, the R&D Director of Tencent Location Based Services, said.

As Tencent discovered, improvements to China’s public transport is what makes today’s tale of two cities a reality. High speed rail now links most cities in the Yangtze River Delta with Shanghai, and subway lines in Shanghai are also being extended to more remote areas, even as far as Suzhou.

Professor Chen Xian, the Executive Dean of Antai College of Economics & Management at SJTU says that Shanghai’s high rent is the key element driving people away from the city, but notes that trend benefits both Shanghai and surrounding smaller cities.

“The development of Shanghai and the smaller cities surrounding it are intertwined. Shanghai should welcome people to work in the city while living elsewhere as Shanghai’s population is getting to be too large, but the city still needs the labor force. For the smaller cities, the demand for local property will rise, and the local consumer markets will also be boosted. And it helps somewhat in creating jobs in the smaller cities as well. For example, when people working in Shanghai own an apartment in a nearby city, they might very well hire someone local to clean their homes,” Professor Chen Xian said.

Professor Chen adds that in the future, many may choose to live in nearby cities for their better and quieter environment.

Li Chaoyun is thinking about buying a place in Kunshun since the air is cleaner there, and to stay close to his university memories. He’ll also be able to save money. On his monthly salary he could afford a place in Shanghai. But the average price per square meter for a residence in Kunshan is only about 15-thousand yuan ($2,182) per square meter. Shanghai’s is about 50-thousand ($7,276).

Yan Song discusses inter-city commuting in China

For more discussions on inter-city travelling in China and how it can be improved, CGTN’s Rachelle Akuffo spoke to Yan Song, director of Program on Chinese Cities at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.