Out of a Jam: China Can Choose Sustainable Transportation and Smart Growth Instead of Car Dependence and Hypermotorization

China still has a chance to jump over the trap of car dependence and innovate new ways of sustainable living—if it chooses.

For over ten days in late August, a traffic jam in the northwest corner of Beijing stretched sixty miles toward Inner Mongolia. With engines continuously burning fuel, vehicles inched forward, sometimes progressing as little as 1/3 of a mile a day, while sending plumes of exhaust spiraling skyward. At one point, officials suggested that the bottleneck might not be cleared until September. While this particular incident was triggered by road construction, similarly nightmarish experiences are not unfamiliar to Beijing residents, who deal with long, frustrating commutes through the capital’s sclerotic roads on a daily basis. The most recent record-breaking incident in Beijing was on September 17th before the Moon Festival holiday. A light rain triggered a severe evening rush-hour jam that extended to 140 roads, reducing driving speeds on those roads below 12.4 miles/hour.  Of course, we all know the small rain was not the real culprit.

Traffic congestion has become increasingly frequent and severe in major Chinese cities as car sales have boomed. In 2009, China overtook the United States to become the world’s largest market for personal vehicles, with sales of 13 million cars and light trucks. This year’s sales are projected to surpass 15 million units. In Beijing alone, this translates to approximately adding 1,900 new cars every day.

The potential impact of this surging tide of automobiles—on air quality, human health, personal mobility and quality of life—is tremendous.  Road networks in mega cities like Beijing and Shanghai (and in many second-tier cities such as Xi’an and Dalian) have expanded several folds over the past three decades, but still continuously suffer from severe congestions and lack of parking.  “Induced traffic” is the term transportation experts use --  wider roads lead to more cars and more cars demand wider roads. This is a vicious circle that Chinese cities should try and get out of. Traffic accidents, fatalities and air pollution will keep rising as vehicles and their kilometers traveled increase, even if individual vehicles become safer or more efficient. Dependence on foreign oil and greenhouse gas emissions will also increase, limiting China’s future development potential.

As more cars appear on city streets, more and more pedestrians and cyclists will be crowded out. Between 1995 and 2005, while car ownership rose from 1.14 million to 13.84 million, bicycle ownership dropped 35%. Presently, bicycle usage contributes only 18.1% of people’s trips in Beijing.

The number of cars per capita remains low—there are only 18 cars for every 1,000 people in China, compared to 940 for every 1,000 in the United States—so the room for growth is huge and the speed at which automobile use is expanding is alarming. Since 2009, China has become the world’s number one auto maker and seller, with two-digit rates of annual increase. Transportation expert Lee Schipper calls this “hypermotorization” which is leading to frequent gridlock, intense pollution, and hideous streets for walking and cycling.

But this situation isn’t inevitable in the course of urbanization. As Schipper has noted, in China “most of the infrastructure and almost all of the vehicles that could be seen on the streets by 2020 are not yet in place or manufactured.” That means China still has a choice. After all, since most people don’t own cars yet and haven’t begun to drive, their habits and preferences can still be shaped in an environmentally sustainable way.

Thus, it is absolutely critical for Chinese policy makers and planners to put “sustainable transportation” on the top of their agendas, in order to avoid the trap of car/oil dependence.

First, sustainable transportation entails affordable, convenient, and green mass transportation. Luckily, there is good news on this front: China is constructing high-speed railways (HSR). Currently, the length of operating HSR in China has reached 4,288 miles, placing the country first in the world in terms of commercial mileage. Meanwhile, more than 6,200 miles more HSR are under construction, and the railways with the world's fastest operating speed of 350 km/hr (217.5 miles/hour) have begun operations between Beijing and Tianjin, Wuhan and Guangzhou, Zhengzhou and Xi'an, and Shanghai and Nanjing. In addition to inter-city mass transit, at least 15 cities already have subway systems operating or under construction

However, not every city is as big as Shanghai or Beijing, so subways are not necessarily cost effective. Nor can every part of a city be reached by a subway train. Therefore, sustainable transportation also means offering a range of clean and efficient choices, including safe and enjoyable walking and cycling. Other mass transit options such as bus rapid transit or simply more frequent and convenient regular bus routes, which can be built at a fraction of subway costs, may be suitable for many smaller cities. (See here for more information on BRT in China)

In addition, strategies such as limiting the issuance of license plates, levying fuel taxes, and establishing congestion charges could also help discourage the use of cars; though finding ways of reducing the crowdedness and increasing comfortableness in public transportation may be a critical pre-requisite in major Chinese cities.

All in all, cities need to consider more than just road networks and transportation systems while attempting to solve transportation problems. They should pursue a suite of “smart growth” strategies, involving compact urban designs without compromising quality of life, mixed land and building use where appropriate, emphasis on walk-friendly communities, and public participation that helps avoid costly mistakes in decision making.

China can avoid falling into the trap of car dependence if its cities stop pursuing hypermotorization and start adopting smart growth strategies.


With important contributions from Kevin Hsu, Christine Xu, and Michael Davidson.