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Are the Chinese Giving Up on Motordom?

January 7, 2013

There’s an important story here: the one being told, and the one implied.

Bloomberg yesterday reported that China to Boost Urban Transport as City Congestion Worsens:

The government will support the development of environmentally friendly urban transport systems and offer tax breaks and fuel subsidies for mass transit vehicles, according to a statement by the State Council, or cabinet, posted on the central government’s website on Jan. 5. …

Li Keqiang, No 2 in the ruling Communist Party’s hierarchy, is championing urbanization as a new growth engine that will boost incomes and consumption. The focus on improving public transport comes as the government faces growing discontent over pollution that’s caused partly by surging car ownership.

I have never understood why China committed itself to Motordom in the first place: the development of a massive automobile industry, promotion of cars to the rising middle-class, and a huge expansion of its motorway system, along with all the auto-dependent urban form that went along with it.

It couldn’t possibly work.  A back-of-the-envelope calculation, comparing the amount of road space, current and projected, with the increase in vehicle use, would result almost immediately in totally congested cities.  Which is pretty much what happened.

shanghai

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Their planning did call for a huge increase in rapid-transit rail capacity – and they achieved astonishing results.  Some of the major cities also recognized the inevitable:

Beijing put four subway routes into operation on Dec. 30, bringing the number of lines in the Chinese capital to 16. The city, with a population of more than 20 million, already caps the number of new auto registrations and limits the use of private vehicles on designated days based on their license plate numbers. The government is planning to build a road-congestion charging system, the city’s transport commission said in August.

But it wasn’t enough.  So now the commitment is to more transit expansion – with more emphasis on buses – and (this will be the test) constraints on car use:

The government will aim to make public services the “dominant” form of transport in urban areas and boost the use of electric vehicles such as buses and street cars in addition to rail transit, it said.

Special shuttle services, including airport and school buses, will be allowed to use public transport lanes and parking may be banned in congested areas. Local authorities should aim to put a bus stop every 500 meters in city centers, according to the statement.

The government will encourage the development of smart cards and mobile payment systems, and initiatives such as increasing the use of vehicle rental and better taxi-booking facilities will be supported.

I doubt there will be any reduction in auto manufacturing and sales, however.    So the next story will be the one to watch: Can the Chinese actually reject Motordom?

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. yvrlutyens permalink
    January 7, 2013 1:51 pm

    It always puzzled me too why the Chinese seemed to embrace auto dominated urban growth. This was after all in a place that was full of bikes at one time. It seemed to me that looking at previously developed countries would show what was a good idea and what was a bad idea and that developing countries could learn from that. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case. I am however not as puzzled as before. The rest of the world is a pretty good model for us to see what works and what does not work and we take no better heed. Clinging to preconceived notions appears to be part of the universal human condition.

  2. January 7, 2013 2:15 pm

    Desires are not always rational ones. I’m sure the Chinese looked to the West and our perceived wealth and to a certain extent, followed without fully considering the consequences.

  3. Agustin permalink
    January 7, 2013 2:49 pm

    If anyone can do wholesale changes in infrastructure quickly, it’s China. One of the perks of ubiquitous government control.

    Shanghai alone will have gone from zero to 20 subway lines in the course of 25 years.

  4. Guest permalink
    January 7, 2013 3:01 pm

    Yes, I would think it would be a bit obvious (at least on an individual basis) -

    the quest for affluence…

    Which is also one of the reasons that North Americans are reluctant to give up their cars.

    But on the flip side, from a collective, nation-building perspective, you’d expect a rapidly industrializing country to “upgrade” their infrastructure to provide some sort of “minimal” level of freeway system. Based on China’s massive population, I suspect that what may be “minimal” or “baseline” to serve a billion+ population may seem “super-sized” to North American eyes…

    I wonder how their lanes of roadway or freeway compare on a per capita basis to North America?

  5. yvrlutyens permalink
    January 7, 2013 3:19 pm

    What really puzzled me is not instituting a comprehensive road pricing system to control congestion and to limit the increase in passenger cars. Tolling is piecemeal, project by project, and is clearly controlling neither congestion nor car use. But the consequences of dumping large increases in roadways in a growing urban area were obvious: the new roads would quickly become jammed, pollution would increase and other transport modes would be pushed off the roads.

  6. Richard permalink
    January 7, 2013 4:46 pm

    I’d worry far more about us than the Chinese. Their use of automobiles is far lower than even our “ambitious” long term targets. Beijing and Shanghai have auto commuting mode shares of only 21%. In the “developed” world, only Paris and Tokyo are better.

    While much of their development is not that attractive, it is very dense and far easier to effectively serve with rapid transit than pretty much anything here. Even better that most if not all of the so called transit oriented development here.

    Don’t mistake car ownership for car use. People with money buy stuff including cars. That does not mean they use them. The Netherlands has high levels of ownership but most just sit in the garage while people cycle for most trips.

    There is massive metro system expansion in 25 Chinese cities. They have the world’s largest high speed rail system and are building even more.

    Us focusing on China seems to mainly a distraction from our lack of action here. Or even an excuse not to do more.

  7. January 7, 2013 6:14 pm

    While there is a prestige factor of owning vehicles in China, it is nowhere near the car culture we have in North America. I definitely have more faith that they will adopt public transit on a massive scale quicker than we will.

  8. January 8, 2013 5:57 pm

    The Chinese are definitely taking huge strides away from motordom, Gord! You should read about the new 2000km high speed rail line (the world’s longest) that was opened between Beijing and Guangzhou, with an extension in the works to Hong Kong. Travel time has been cut from 27 hours to 8 if not flying.

  9. Matt permalink
    January 25, 2013 3:40 pm

    “The government has encouraged car sales as part of the Chinese dream. “The Chinese customer really wants a better life,” says Arthur Wang, of McKinsey’s Shanghai office, “and when they consider that, they have a house, they have a car.” Officials are thinking about the economic benefits. Car manufacturing has a powerful multiplier effect compared with other sectors, fuelling steel production and other industries and, at the other end of the chain, a growing number of dealerships.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/dec/14/china-worlds-biggest-new-car-market

    Wow that was hard to find…

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