Urban Transportation Strategies in Chinese Cities and Their Impacts on the Urban Poor

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Urban Transportation Strategies in Chinese Cities and Their Impacts on the Urban Poor
Zhong-Ren Peng, Ph.D.

Director, Center for Advanced Spatial Information Research

Associate Professor

Department of Urban Planning

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

PO Box 413

Milwaukee, WI 53201-0413


Abstract: Addressing traffic problems seems to be the guiding principle of urban transportation policies in developing countries and in particular, China. Many large cities like Beijing and Shanghai have created urban transportation development strategies that focus mainly on combating traffic congestion and modernizing the transportation infrastructure. A variety of transportation strategies have been proposed and some are being implemented, such as expressway expansion, the development of subways and light rail, the magnetic levitation (maglev) system, and bus rapid transit systems. But these supply-oriented transportation development strategies have overlooked the basic transportation modes such as busing, biking, and walking. These are the modes that the vast majority of travelers, particularly the urban poor, depend on. This paper focuses on assessing the impacts of the supply-oriented urban transportation strategies in China on the accessibility needs of the urban poor.


Urban transportation policy in China is mostly driven by addressing traffic problems because traffic congestion has become one of the most serious urban problems in many large Chinese cities. For example, in central Beijing (within the third ring expressway), the average traffic speed was 45km/hour in 1994, 33km/hour in 1995, 20 km/hour in 1996, and 12 km/hour in 2003. On some arterial roads, the speed has dropped to 7 km/hour. During the rush hours, about 20 percent of roads and intersections are in total gridlock and the traffic speed is less than 5 km/hour [1]. The average speed of buses in major central cities has dropped from 30-35 km/hour in the 1950s, to 20-25km/hour in the 1970s, 14-20km/hour in the 1980s, to 10-15km/hour in the 1990s [2]. In 2003, the average bus speed was about 9.2 km/hour in Beijing [1], and 10 km/hour in Shanghai in 2004 [3].

These traffic problems, caused mainly by rising resident incomes, rapid urbanization, and the national policy to encourage automobile ownership in order to stimulate economic growth, [4, 5] have created other serious problems that affect urban growth, economic development, and the quality of life of residents. For example, in 2003, more than 40% of commuters in Beijing spent more than an hour to commute to work. Only 5.5% of workers took less than 20 minutes to commute [1]. Traffic also causes grave problems for the urban poor as we will discuss later in the paper.

To address these increasing traffic problems, the Chinese government has focused mainly on increasing the supply of road infrastructure by expanding road systems and developing rapid transit systems like subway, light rail, rapid bus transit, and even the magnetic levitation (Maglev) system. For example, the City of Beijing drafted the “Beijing Transportation Development Framework” in 2004, and the City of Shanghai developed the “Shanghai Metropolitan Transport White Paper” in 2002. Both plans focus mainly on increasing road and rail capacity and improving transportation infrastructure. By adopting this supply-based, capacity building transportation development strategy, the cities wish to alleviate traffic congestion and modernize the urban road infrastructure. It is this desire to show off the achievement of municipal government by modernizing urban infrastructure that motivates most city governments to build more roads and rapid transit systems. Therefore, modernizing urban infrastructure becomes the de facto guiding principle in most urban transportation plans and development strategies in China.
As a result, we see the development of expressways, subway, light rail, and rapid bus transit systems consistently at the top of transportation plans in most Chinese cities. At the same time, traditional non-motorized modes and bus systems are always at the bottom of the list in the transportation plans and development strategies. Even worse, walking and biking are discouraged in some cities not only because they are considered to impede automobile traffic flow, but also because they are considered a relic of the past, and derided as inferior transportation modes. The neglect of walking, biking, and busing in transportation planning policies will have severe negative impacts on the accessibility needs of the urban poor, since these non-motorized travel modes and buses are used by the majority of urban residents, particularly the low-income and the urban poor.
The urban poor are a special group of people with very low incomes and very limited mobility. Due to increased urban unemployment and growing numbers of poor farmers migrating to urban areas, the population of this group has risen over the years [6, 7, and 8]. These urban poor rely on non-motorized modes and buses to get around in their daily life, to access work places, medical, and other essential services. Despite a large amount of investment in transportation systems, the accessibility of the urban poor in large Chinese cities has not improved. Walking and biking, the most common modes of transportation for the urban poor have been made even more difficult. In some cities, biking is even prohibited. Furthermore, redevelopment of older portions of the cities forces many residents, often low-income, to move to the suburbs [9]. This movement makes it more difficult or even impossible for low-income residents to commute to work by walking or biking. Big investments in rapid transit systems like subway, light rail, or bus rapid transit can help. But due to the higher fares and spatial locations of the urban poor, these rapid transit systems are often difficult for the urban poor to reach and use.
This paper intends to analyze the urban transportation strategies and their impacts on the urban poor. It first discusses the definition of the urban poor in China, describes the travel characteristics of the urban poor. It then compares urban transportation development strategies in two large cities, Beijing and Shanghai, and their impacts on the urban poor. Finally, some policy recommendations are made to address the transportation needs of the urban poor.

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