Length of the Interstate Highway System and of the Chinese Expressway System, 1959-2021

Length of the Interstate Highway System and of the Chinese Expressway System 1959 2021

Source: Federal Highway Administration & National Bureau of Statistics of China.

An overview of the growth of the American and Chinese highway systems underlines different growth sequences and rates. From its inception, the American Interstate highway system expanded substantially, but at a declining rate as it neared its planned size (46,000 miles; 74,000 km). By 1991, after more than three decades of construction, the system was considered completed, with a total cost of about 129 billion dollars. Between 1954 and 2001, 370 billion dollars were invested by the federal government in the construction and maintenance of the system. Close to three-quarters of the financing came from fuel taxes, which created a positive feedback loop as the more interstate roads were available, the more fuel consumption and tax collection. However, the Interstate faces diminishing returns due to high construction and maintenance costs, forcing many state governments to consider privatizing several highway segments. Construction costs went from four million dollars per mile in 1959 to 20 million dollars in 1979. Still, the system has returned more than six dollars in economic productivity for each dollar it costs, placing it at the core of American economic productivity gains in the second half of the 20th century.

The Chinese expressway system was developed later but at a much faster rate. Before 1989, there were no highways in China, but as the economy opened up, developing a national expressways system was considered a priority. To facilitate the fast construction of the system, almost all expressways are toll roads financed by private companies under contract from provincial governments, commonly as public-private partnerships. The debt contracted for expressway construction is expected to be recovered through toll collection. China did not implement a national fuel tax road financing mechanism, unlike the United States. This mode of financing thus differs from the publicly funded highway systems built in Europe and North America.

A significant landmark was achieved in 2011 when the length of the Chinese expressway system surpassed that of the American interstate system. The planned length of the expressway system was set at 85,000 km but was exceeded since the system surpassed 100,000 km in 2013 and 169,000 km in 2021. The construction of new expressways will likely slow down afterward, underlining that at this point, China will have achieved an important step in its motorization transition. It remains to be assessed in light of the significant urban population, rising national production and consumption levels, and the fast growth of car ownership to what extent the national expressway network will be sufficient to support China’s mobility needs. Further, rapid growth will incur high maintenance costs as the highway infrastructure ages.