The headline a few months ago about that highway to be built between Beijing and Taipei might have taken a few people in various Chinese provinces by surprise.
The plans for a national highway network and other 'connectivity projects', formerly known as public works, are nothing if not ambitious. In east China, such investment is playing a major role in the emergence of the Shanghai megalopolis.
A collection of cities
A megalopolis can be defined as a region made up of several large cities and their surrounding areas in sufficient proximity to each other to be considered a single built-up urban area.
The Shanghai megalopolis is often also referred to as the Yangtze River Delta but these terms have slightly different meanings, megalopolis being the more fitting term for the scale of development connecting several previously independent urban areas; the term 'delta' refers simply to a geographical area. The Shanghai megalopolis has not yet emerged sufficiently to have clearly defined boundaries. A 'development envelope' covers an area that stretches out by some definitions to 700km; by others, it is within a three-hour drive of Shanghai, or, extends west to Nanjing, incorporating Hangzhou, Suzhou and Wuxi is generally covered by the term. By pushing the envelope Hefei, Nantong, Ningbo and Yangzhou north of the Yangtze could all be included.
Huge by any standard
Whichever way you look at it, this is a vast area which, by some measures with a population 55% bigger than the whole of Japan, is emerging as the major economic driver for China. In fact, it is set to form the most significant concentration of wealth outside the United States within a 20-year period.
Transport communications are crucial to such a vast urban area to develop. An integrated transport network includes air, rail, road, river crossings, expressways and, importantly in Shanghai's case, well dredged canals and waterways.
Shanghai alone has a planned 780km of new rail track (including metro lines, light railways and suburban railways) of which 311km is to be completed by 2010, spread over 17 lines. Rail alone opens up new areas for business and domestic users and it has been instrumental in attracting investors to Pudong.
Nationally, China's plans for new roads call for building 85,000km of expressways by 2030 at a cost of around US$242bn. Currently there are 34,000km of expressways so the new network will be of great significance. New river crossings within Shanghai included the Lupu Bridge, connecting Puxi to the southern parts of Pudong, which has resulted in the opening up areas around Sanlin and Kangqiao for residential and industrial use; and the Fuxing Road Tunnel which has relieved pressure on the existing Yan'an Road Tunnel.
Future roads in Shanghai itself include the Middle Ring Road, an eight-lane highway scheduled for completion in 2007, which will include new river crossings to be completed at Shangzhong Road and Qin Ning Si.
For the direction of future suburban growth in the east of Shanghai, look no further than Chongming Island, currently a largely forgotten back water on the edge of the municipality. Despite the lack of attention in recent years, Chongming is, in fact, China's third largest island, behind Taiwan and Hainan. A road tunnel-bridge was approved in late 2004, and talk of residential and tourist development, combined with nature reserves, have been the subject of several recent conferences.
The glue of the megalopolis
Intra megalopolis infrastructure, however, is what really draws the whole megalopolis together. Major improvements have been made in the last decade, notably highways to Suzhou, Hangzhou and Ningbo – and more is on the way, including the Hangzhou Bay Bridge (under construction), connecting Ningbo to Jiaxing; the Jialiu Highway from Jiading to Taicang; Tongsan National Highway which runs all the way from Tongjiang in Heilongjiang to Sanya in Hainan via Shanghai (the suburban ring road comprises the Shanghai section); a new highway from Shanghai to Hefei; the Jinghu Highway from Beijing to Shanghai. Railway line upgrades include the Huhang High-speed Railway (under planning) from Shanghai to Hangzhou, Huning Railway from Shanghai to Ningbo and a new railway station (the Shanghai South Railway Station) to improve access to Nanjing and Hangzhou.
While difficult to contemplate the individual impact each of these projects will have, what is for certain is the number of places that will be brought closer to not just China's biggest marketplace, but also international markets via the ports.
But what of the impact on businesses, a subject close to every investor's heart? Already, we are seeing a whole range of new options for office and factory users, logistics operators, international schools and expatriate housing. To this subject I will return in a future column. Watch this space.