SHANGHAI — One aspect of this country’s high-speed economic growth is that Chinese are getting richer and prefer to have their own cars. After decades of streets crowded with bicyclists pedaling their way to work, suddenly China has blossomed into the world’s largest auto market.
But that isn’t something worth celebrating, at least not for Chinese mayors. In fact, cities here are trying hard to pry drivers out of their shiny new cars and lure them into mass transit.
By 2015, on average, 1 out of 3 commuters should travel by mass transmit in big cities, up from 1 out of 5 now, according to China’s Ministry of Transportation’s proposed development plan.
This topic landed a prime spot on the official agenda, since the proliferation of private cars on the road is turning cities into gridlocked nightmares. Already, Beijing’s emergency medical centers have begun sending paramedics by motorcycles, instead of ambulances, to maneuver through stalled traffic.
In addition, air pollution is worsening. Even with elevated standards for emissions, which are now stricter than those of many states in the United States, the addition of more cars plays a major role in causing acid rain and smog. State-run media reported that smog caused by vehicle emissions enveloped some regions of China for more than 200 days in 2009.
And although scientists still debate whether some forms of vehicle pollution travel from China to other countries, as dust storms do, there is little doubt that a warming love affair with private cars in China is creating the greenhouse gas emissions to help warm the planet.
Mass transit falls behind mass migration
China’s city planners have tried to minimize these problems. Over the past few years, they have added fleets of buses, extended hundreds of miles of urban rail lines and rolled out new solutions like bus-only lanes to convince drivers to drop their car keys.
This has gotten some Chinese out from behind the wheel. Che Liqing, a 29-year-old salesman at an American pharmaceutical company in Beijing, bought a car three years ago but hardly ever drives it to work.
“Riding the subway is convenient, and I don’t need to worry about traffic,” said Che. However, he added that he does worry about whether he can squeeze into the often overcrowded train.
As about 13 million people flooded into cities in each of the recent years, the fast-growing commuting demand hampered any efforts to make public transport rides a friendly experience.
In the Chinese capital, for instance, subway doors can’t be closed at peak hours until yellow-uniformed attendants use their white-gloved hands to cram the last few riders into the train.
Che said the experience with buses is the same, if not even worse. Although he still views public transport as the best option, Che said that it isn’t the case for many other car owners who pursue comfort.
To keep car owners like Che riding the subway and to win more drivers’ hearts, Chinese cities have promised to increase urban rail systems threefold by 2015. Meanwhile, bus rapid transit, a system that has proved a popular solution in other crowded areas like Mexico City, will grow 10 times here.
Jacking up the price of driving
Still, those measures may not unclog roads.
Liu Zhi, lead infrastructure specialist from the World Bank’s Beijing office, pointed out that without traffic control on private cars in the space-squeezed cities, public transport can’t work in an efficient way.
Although cities are stretching their underground transportation networks like spiderwebs, new lines are too costly to reach every corner of the city. Thus, the success of the campaign to fight traffic and air pollution relies on whether cities can provide commuters a smooth bus ride, Liu said.
Already, Beijing has been shifting gears on this issue. This year, for the first time, the city slapped a quota on the number of vehicles that can be registered, cutting the number of its newly added cars by nearly 70 percent compared with 2010 levels. But this approach is unlikely to get copied by others.
Putting the brakes on private car purchasing equals turning off an economic growth engine, said Jenny Gu, a senior market analyst at global research firm J.D. Power and Associates. Gu noted that since Beijing red-lighted car registrations, many local auto dealers have run out of business and had to close their stores.
To keep the economic engine on, while reining in car use, some city planners choose to simply increase the price of driving.
In Shanghai, registering a private car means going through an auction and shelling out the equivalent of at least $6,000 for a license plate. Chongqing, a mountain city of some 30 million people in western China, wants to follow London’s example and charge congestion fees. Drivers intent on going into busy areas during workdays must pay them.
At the same time, more cities practice another measure that has worked on many private car owners — including analyst Gu — in Shanghai. “Parking lots near my office are too expensive,” Gu said, adding that she rides the subway to work, and so do her colleagues.
Waking up ‘Sleeping City’
But what China’s city planners really hope is that their citizens will not need to travel, not even by buses and subways.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, public transportation has left Chinese cities with a financial burden. In Beijing, each mile of subway costs more than $1 million, not to mention fare subsidies. And expansion projects take years to complete. Furthermore, even though cities have been replacing smoky buses with electric ones, environmental groups are still arguing that the electricity mainly comes from burning coal.
Reshuffling land use might be the solution, said Sumeeta Srinivasan, an urban planning expert at Harvard. Thanks to the high population density in Chinese cities, fitting office buildings, shopping malls and anything else that people need every day in proximity to where they live is a viable option. Then the Chinese can get it all by walking or by bike, she added.
Yet most Chinese cities were not designed in this way. Many dwellers have to flock into central areas of the city for work, study and leisure, creating “tidal commuting,” said Ma Haibing, manager of the China Program at the Worldwatch Institute, a sustainable development research group based in Washington, D.C.
However, Ma continued, China’s urban planners have realized the problem and have been adding missing features into neighborhoods.
Tian Tong Yuan, a Beijing suburb that was once nicknamed “Shui Cheng” — literally, “Sleeping City” — is a case in point.
When the sun rose, residents there traveled 12 miles to downtown Beijing to meet their daily needs; after dark, they traveled all the way back and attended the only attraction available — sleeping at home.
But that has already faded into memory, said Zeng Jing, a 28-year-old resident of the suburb. Today, people there can go shopping at the neighboring Walmart, skate at a nearby indoor ice skating rink and catch up the latest movie hits at their local 3-D cinema, she added.
Asked whether she plans to buy a car, Zeng replied, smiling, “Yes. But we will use it only for weekend getaways.”
Photo by Coco Liu