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Zhou Haitao: Planning the National Backbone Highways

The Systematic Plan for National Main Trunk Lines Containing Five Vertical and Seven Horizontal Lines (Plan for Five Vertical and Seven Horizontal Lines) was the first of its kind for large-scale highway trunk lines on China’s 9.6-million-square-kilometers. It deployed systematic planning and theoretical methods, which is also rare worldwide.

“We were worried that inaccurate judgments and conclusions could lead to incorrect planning for such a plan spanning three decades, which would be a major crime for the development of highway traffic in China - It seems that we don’t have to worry anymore,” Zhou Haitao, former chief engineer at Ministry of Transport, recalled.

In 1956, the General Bureau for Highway Administration of the Ministry of Transport organized experts to draft the first highway plan. In 1981, the State Development Planning Commission, the State Economic and Trade Commission and the Ministry of Transport jointly issued a plan to build a 109,000-kmnational national backbone road networks. At the end of 1984, the State Council issued policies to collect vehicle purchase surcharges, increase road maintenance fees, and build road with loans, to fund highway construction. The Plan for Five Vertical and Seven Horizontal Lines was finally approved by the State Council in 1992.

“At that time, cars were not the only players on the road; horse-drawn carriages, ox carts and trolleys were all there. Accidents occurred frequently,” said Zhou Haitao.

The proportion of secondary roads in the national highway network at that time was extremely low. The roads were congested with both short-distance and long-distance vehicles. From 1980 to 1985, China focused its effort on renovating and expanding the secondary roads.

Yet, widening roads failed to improve traffic efficiency as mixed types of vehicles were using the same roads. In the 1980s, cars were running at 30 km/hour on average, and those on backbone highways ran only at 37 km/hour.

China then borrowed experience from the United States and Japan when designing dedicated expressway for cars.

“At that time, people's understanding of highway construction was inconsistent and there were many different voices,” Zhou Haitao recalled. In the early 1980s, there were only about four million cars nationwide, which translates to four cars each kilometer of the road.

In 1989, the People’s Daily organized a discussion on transport development. Many people rejected plans for expressway construction and regarded it as a waste of resources considering the limited car ownership. In July 1989 when Zou Jiahua, then State Councilor, pointed out that expressway construction is not a question of whether or not, but how.

At that time, there were many roads to be built, yet funds were limited. How to develop transport and economy, which roads should be prioritized, and how to predict future economic growth trends were the biggest challenges for the planners like Zhou Haitao.

“After three years of study, we concluded that we will focus on constructing 30,000 km highways nationwide,” Zhou said, explaining these roads would connect all cities with over one million people as well as 93% of the cities with a population of 500,000.

The study to draw up the plan also found that these cities are where the industries lie.

“Linking up these of major cities will also link up major industries in China,” said Zhou. The economic and social development in the past 30 years proved that prediction.

The plan for the national backbone highways feature three characteristics. It gives high priority for economic development. The roads go through major cities with large population and traffic volume, as well as relatively high industrial outputs. It also provided fast corridors among major cities and industrial regions. And lastly, it provided dedicated expressway for motorized vehicles, phasing out the chaotic transport with mixed types of vehicles.

With the implementation of the plan, China's highway construction began to pick up pace. During the 7th Five-Year Plan period (1986-1990), 522 km of highways were built. By 2015 the total length of expressway has reached 108,000 km.

“I was fortunate enough to witness not only the leap-forward of China’s highways system, but also ever-changing innovation of transport technologies,” Zhou said. During the three decades, China has also achieved great scientific and technological innovations in the fields of highways, bridges, tunnels and traffic engineering.