The expressway network of China is an integrated system of national and provincial-level expressways in China. By the end of 2016, the total length of China's expressway network reached 131,000 kilometers, the world's largest expressway system by length, having surpassed the overall length of the American Interstate Highway System in 2011. A system of national-level expressways, officially known as the National Trunk Highway System (simplified Chinese: 中国国家高速公路网; traditional Chinese: 中國國家高速公路網; pinyin: Zhōngguó Guójiā Gāosù Gōnglùwǎng) and abbreviated NTHS, with 7 radial expressways (from the capital Beijing), 11 north-south expressways and 18 east-west expressways, forms the backbone of the expressway network in the country. This backbone is known as the 71118 network (simplified Chinese: 71118网; traditional Chinese: 71118網; pinyin: 71118 wǎng). In addition, the provincial-level divisions of China each have their own expressway systems.
Expressways in China are a fairly recent addition to the transportation infrastructure in the country. Previously, the national road network consisted of a system of at-grade China National Highways. China's first expressway, the Shanghai–Jiading Expressway, opened in October 1988.[note 1] This 17.37 kilometres (10.79 mi) expressway now forms part of Shanghai'sexpressway network. The early 1990s saw the start of the country's massive plan to upgrade its network of roads. In 1999, the length of the network exceeded 10,000 kilometres (6,200 mi) in length. Many of the major expressways parallel routes of the older China National Highways.
Prior to the 1980s, freight and passenger transport activities were predominantly achieved by rail transport rather than by road. The 1980s and 1990s saw a growing trend toward roads as a method of transportation and a shift away from rail transport. In 1978, rail transport accounted for 54.4% of the total freight movement in China, while road transport only accounted for 2.8%. By 1997, road transport's share of freight movement had increased to 13.8% while the railway's share decreased to 34.3%. Similarly, road's share of passenger transport increased from 29.9% to 53.3% within the same time period, with railway's share decreasing from 62.7% to 35.4%. The shift from rail to road can be attributed to the rapid development of the expressway network in China.
On 13 January 2005, Zhang Chunxian, China's Minister of Transport announced that China would build a network of 85,000 kilometres (53,000 mi) expressways over the next three decades, connecting all provincial capitals and cities with a population of over 200,000 residents. The announcement introduced the 7918 network (simplified Chinese: 7918网; traditional Chinese: 7918網; pinyin: 7918 wǎng), a grid of 7 radial expressways from Beijing, 9 north-south expressways, and 18 east-west expressways that would form the backbone of the national expressway system. This replaced the earlier proposal for five north-south and seven east-west core routes, proposed in 1992.
Map of the National Expressway Network Radial line North–South lineEast–West line Zonal ring line (Dot line: Planned)
The total costs of the national expressway network are estimated to be 2 trillion yuan (some 300 billion US dollars as rate in 2016). From 2005 to 2010, the annual investment was planned to run from 140 billion yuan (17 billion US dollars) to 150 billion yuan (18 billion US dollars), while from 2010 to 2020, the annual investment planned is to be around 100 billion yuan (12 billion US dollars).
The construction fund will come from vehicle purchase tax, fees and taxes collected by local governments, state bonds, domestic investment and foreign investment. Unlike other freeway systems, almost all of the roads on the NTHS/"7918 Network" are toll roads that are largely financed by private companies under contract from provincial governments. The private companies raise money through bond and stock offerings and recover money through tolls.
Neither officially named "motorway" nor "highway", China used to call these roads "freeways". In this sense, the word "free" means that the traffic is free-flowing; that is, cross traffic is grade separated and the traffic on the freeway is not impeded by traffic control devices like traffic lights and stop signs. However, many misinterpret "free" as meaning "no cost", and this may be misleading because most of the expressways are in fact toll roads. Some time in the 1990s, "expressways" became the standardised term.
"Express routes" exist too; they are akin to expressways but are mainly inside cities. The "express route" name is a derivation of the Chinese name kuaisu gonglu (compare with expressway, gaosu gonglu). Officially, "expressway" is used for both expressways and express routes, which is also the standard used here.
The names of the individual expressways are regularly composed of two characters representing start and end of expressway, e.g. "Jingcheng" expressway is the expressway between "Jing" (meaning Beijing) and Chengde.
A minimum speed limit of 70 km/h is in force. On overtaking lanes, however, this could be as high as 100 km/h to 110 km/h. Penalties for driving both below and in excess of the prescribed speed limits are enforced.
Only motor vehicles are allowed to enter expressways. As of May 1, 2004, "new drivers" (i.e., those with a Chinese driver's licence for less than a year) are allowed on expressways, something that was prohibited from the mid-1990s.
Overtaking on the right, speeding, and illegal use of the emergency belt (or hard shoulder) cost violators stiff penalties.
Chinese expressway distances road sign. Shown here are some connections to the Expressways of Beijing in eastern Beijing. (Spring 2003 image)
The signs on Chinese expressways use white lettering on a green background, like Japanese highways, Swiss autobahns and United States freeways. Newer signage places the exit number in an exit tab to the upper right of the sign, making them very similar in appearance to American freeway signs.
Exits are well indicated, with signs far ahead of exits. There are frequent signs that announce the next three exits. At each exit, there is a sign with the distance to the next exit. Exit signs are also posted 3000 m, 2000 m, 1000 m, and 500 m ahead of the exit, immediately before the exit, and at the exit itself.
Service areas and refreshment areas are standard on some of the older, more established expressways, and are expanding in number. Gas stations are frequent.
Signs indicate exits, toll gates, service/refreshment areas, intersections, and also warn about keeping a fair distance apart. "Distance checks" are commonplace; the idea here is to keep the two-second rule (or, as Chinese law requires, at least a 100 m distance between cars). Speed checks and speed traps are often signposted (in fact, on the Jingshen Expressway in the Beijing section, even the cameras have a warning sign above them), but some may just be scarecrow signs. Signs urging drivers to slow down, warning about hilly terrain, banning driving in emergency lanes, or about different road surfaces are also present. Also appearing from time to time are signs signaling the overtaking lane (which legally should only be used to pass other cars). Although most English signs are comprehensible, occasionally the English is garbled.
Many expressways have digital displays. These displays may advise against speeding, indicate upcoming road construction, warn of traffic jams, or alert drivers to rain. Recommended detours are also signaled. The great majority of messages are only in Chinese.
Expressway exit numbering
Chinese expressway exit sign (older version). Shown here is an exit sign to Liangxiang Airport in southwestern Beijing on the Jingshi Expressway. (Summer 2004 image)
Exit numbering has been standardised in China from its inception. Most Chinese expressways, especially those in the national network, use distance-based exit numbering, with the last three numbers before the decimal point taken used as the exit number. Hence, an exit present at km 982.7 would be Exit 982, whereas an exit at km 3,121.2 would be Exit 121. Unlike American exit numbering systems that reset at each state line a freeway crosses, exits on Chinese expressways increase along the total length of the freeway, regardless of how many provincial boundaries the expressway crosses.
Mostly regional expressways still use sequential exit numbering, although even here, new signage feature distance-based exit numbering. Before the 2009–2010 numbering switchover, nearly all of China's expressways used sequential numbering, and a few expressways used Chinese names outright.
The exit is written inside an oval in green letters to the immediate right of the Chinese word for exit, "出口" (chukou).
Expressway tolls and financing
Chinese expressway toll gate. Shown here is the Dujiakan toll gate on the Jingshi Expressway in southwest Beijing. (Summer 2004 image)
Chinese expressway toll charges table. In many jurisdictions it is legally required that charges be openly disclosed. Shown here is the toll charges table at Doudian exit on the Jingshi Expressway in southwest Beijing. (Autumn 2004 image)
Nearly all expressways are toll roads. Tolls are roughly around CNY 0.5 per kilometre, and minimum rates (e.g. CNY 5) usually apply regardless of distance. However, some are more expensive (the Jinji Expressway costs around CNY 0.66 per kilometre) and some are less expensive (the Jingshi Expressway in Beijing costs around CNY 0.33 per kilometre). It is noteworthy that cheaper expressways do not necessarily mean poorer roads or a greater risk of traffic congestion.
Expressway planning is performed by the Ministry of Transportation of the People's Republic of China. Unlike the road networks in most nations, most Chinese expressways are not directly owned by the state, but rather are owned by for-profit corporations (which have varying amounts of public and private ownership) which borrow money from banks or securities markets based on revenue from projected tollways. One reason for this is that Chinese provinces, which are responsible for road building, have extremely limited powers to tax and even fewer powers to borrow.
Expressway construction has also been one of the rare instances in which the Communist Party of China and the State Council has had to back down on a major policy initiative. During the late-1990s, there were proposals to fund public highways by means of a fuel tax, but this was voted down by the National People's Congress.
ETC sign, along with exit signage, on China National Expressway 1 in Hebei
Most expressways use a card system. Upon entrance to an expressway (or to a toll portion of the expressway), an entry card is handed over to the driver. The tolls to be paid are determined from the distance traveled when the driver hands the entry card back to the exit toll gate upon leaving the expressway. A small number of expressways do not use a card system but charge unitary fares. Passage through these expressways is relatively faster but it is economically less advantageous. An example of such an expressway would be the Jingtong Expressway.
China is increasingly deploying a network of electronic toll collection (ETC) systems, and in the latest edition of expressway toll gate signage, a new ETC sign is now shown at an increasing number of toll gates. ETC networks based around Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong province all feature either mixed toll passages supporting toll card payment or full-service dedicated ETC lanes. Beijing, in particular, has a dedicated ETC lane at almost all toll gates.
City transit cards are not widely used; one of the first experiments with the Beijing Yikatong Card on what is now the Jingzang Expressway (G6) went live for only a year before a new national standard replaced it in early 2008.
Numeric system and list by number
A previous system, the 1992 "five vertical + seven horizontal expressways" system, was used for arterial expressways and were, in essence, G0-series expressways (e.g. G020, G025). This was replaced by the present-day new numeric system (see below).
New numbering system
Signs using the new numbering system as seen on China National Expressway 1 in Tianjin
A new system, which dates from 2004 and began use on a nationwide level beginning late 2009 and early 2010, integrates itself into the present-day G-series number system. The present-day network, termed the 7918 Network (also known as the National Trunk Highway System (NTHS)), uses one, two or four digits in the G-series numbering system, leaving three-figured G roads as the China National Highways.
The new 7918 Network is composed of
7 radial expressways leaving Beijing (G1-G7)
9 vertical expressways going north to south (double digit G roads with numbers ending in an odd numeral)
18 horizontal expressways head west to east (double digit G roads with numbers ending in an even numeral)
The network is additionally composed of connection expressways as well as regional and metropolitan ring expressways.
On a nationwide basis, expressways use the G prefix (short for "guojia" in Chinese meaning "national"), as well as the character "国家高速" (National Expressway, white letters on a red stripe on top of the sign). For regional expressways, the prefix S (short for "shengji" or "province-level") is used instead, as well as the one-character abbreviation of the province and "高速" (expressway, black letters on an orange-yellow stripe on top of the sign.) The same numbering system is used for both national and regional expressways.
All expressways in this network begin with the letter G. (For regional expressways, the letter S is used instead.)
All expressways have a thin band on top of the sign. For national expressways, this will be red; for regional expressways, it will be orange-yellow.
For radial expressways leaving from or ending in Beijing, use a single digit from 1 to 9 (e.g. G1, G2).
For north-south expressways, use an odd number from 11-89 (e.g. G13, G35).
For west-east expressways, use an even number from 10-90 (e.g. G30, G46).
For regional expressways in the 7918 network, use numbers from 91-99 (e.g. G91, G93)
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