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Tackling China's Dirty Transport Woes
Mara Hvistendahl, 17 Sep 07
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Mara Hvistendahl

For the first time this year, China will be among the countries participating in global public transportation week. The week will bring a series of activities to encourage a sustainable morning commute in cities across the country, culminating in a car-free day, where cars will be banned on certain cities and roads, on September 22. China signing on is no small matter -- the government still does campaigns like no one else. The announcement came to me via an enthusiastic SMS.

Of course, it used to be that every week was green transportation week in China. Now the country's sturdy Forever bicycles have been eclipsed by cars. From 2000 to 2006, the number of cars on the road in China more than tripled, from 6 million to 20 million. One of the things about Beijing that impresses out-of-towners the most these days is the traffic - the city alone adds 1,000 cars a week. From a taxi, Beijing can look like a tangle of six- and eight-lane highways, extending out in seemingly interminable concentric rings.

Meanwhile, green transport now suffers from an image problem. Subways are only just tolerable. Buses are uncool. And biking has an even worse reputation. On an episode of a Chinese "Sex in the City" knockoff that aired a few years ago, a Beijing woman cuts off contact with a man she is dating after she spots him on a bike. The subtext: if he is on a bike, he must be poor.

The public transportation campaign suggests that officials recognize this problem, and the week of activities is a step toward remedying it. But this isn't the first time Beijing has taken cars off the road. After International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge warned last month that events at next year's Olympic Games might have to be postponed because of pollution, the city took over a million cars off the road in an Olympic test run. During 2006's Sino-African summit, Beijing reduced the traffic load by half a million cars by banning company- and government- vehicles. That the government designates public transportation days to boost environmental awareness is commendable. That it has to do the same in order to make air temporarily breathable for international events is a sign of poor city planning.

To truly tackle China's transport woes, China needs to rethink its long-term strategy. A few suggestions:

  • Stop building huge highways. Instead, plan for mixed-use, high-density neighborhoods, with housing clustered around retail and entertainment. The newer sections of Chinese cities look like they have been designed with cars in mind. Pudong, the island that forms the eastern half of Shanghai, resembles an American suburb with skyscrapers. Even with its atrocious traffic, Beijing is increasingly seen as a city where it makes sense to have a car.
  • Shift funding away from showcase projects. China touts its magnetic levitation trains - there is one in Shanghai, and others planned for Dalian and Hangzhou - as green. But the Shanghai maglev, which runs from an outlying metro station to Pudong International Airport, is an impractical beast. Out of reach to most of the population at around $6 a ride (a shuttle bus from the airport to the center of the city for $2.50), it serves mostly tourists, and even then still runs at quarter capacity.
  • Projects like no-car days during the Olympics might be called showcase projects as well, and similarly de-emphasized. They present a clean face to the world while barely making a dent in the country's emissions, which the Chinese have to endure throughout the year.
  • Make public transport appealing to an increasingly discerning population. Shanghai's sleek subway system, which attracts businesspeople, is a good model. Beijing recent cut bus fares in an effort to attract more riders, but it did not set aside more bus lanes or revamp its bus fleet - probably factors that matter more to middle-class commuters who can afford cars. As it is, public transport is responsible for only 30 percent of Beijingers' journeys - compared with 76 percent in New York and 91 percent in Tokyo.
  • Charge higher tolls. Tax gas.

As long as cars remain affordable and China's urban infrastructure supports them, people will continue to buy them.

Image: Beijing traffic. Credit: flickr/Commutr

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