Public Transportation and the Spatial Evolution of Chinese Cities
Spurred by three decades of uninterrupted economic growth, China is urbanizing at an unprecedented rate. The world’s most populous nation is expected to have 926 million city dwellers by 2025, and over one billion by 2030 (Mckinsey Global Institute, 2008). The scale of China’s urbanization brings about some worrying trends. In 2009, China overtook the USA as the world’s largest car market (Reuters, 2010). If the average Chinese urbanite in 2025 drives like the average American of the nineties, “the carbon emissions from transportation in urban China alone would exceed 1 billion tons, roughly as much as released from all transportation worldwide today” (Worldwatch Institute, 1999). It is clear that uncontrolled motorization in China would have adverse environmental impacts, both locally and globally.
The development of rapid transit and other modes of public transport are seen as key strategies to tackle Chinese dependence on the automobile. A quick survey of available literature reveals that there is a strong relationship between intra-urban transportation systems and the spatial form and organization of the metropolis (Mueller, 1986). Public transport is more popular in urban areas with densities greater than 100 persons/ha, but becomes less viable when densities fall below 50 persons/ha (Kenworth and Hu, 2002). While the existing urban form plays a critical role in determining the prevalent mode of transportation, the development of transportation systems in turn affects the structure of future land use and growth (Giuliano, 1986). Land-use policy thus affects public transport policy, and vice versa.
The purpose of this paper is to study the effects of public transportation on the spatial evolution of Chinese cities. We identify key factors that shape Chinese urban and transport policy, and use these to compare the present growth of Chinese cities to the historical transformation of American metropolises, especially with regards to transportation systems. Will Chinese cities become the motorized urban sprawl that defines modern American cities? Or will they more closely resemble their Asian neighbors, densely populated and heavily dependent on public transportation networks? Can China integrate its urban development and transport policies to allow for sustainable urbanization? These are the questions this paper seeks to answer.
Effects of Urban Form on Mode of Transportation
Before we look at China specifically, we first study the relationship between intra-urban transportation and urban land-use and density. In their work titled “Impacts of Mixed Use and Density on Utilization of Three Modes of Travel: Single-Occupant Vehicle, Transit, and Walking”, Frank and Pivo (1994) used multivariate regression to test the relationship between urban form and transportation mode while controlling for non-urban-form factors. Their key finding was that employment density was a more significant factor than population density in reducing motorization. In particular, a dramatic increase in the usage of public transport occurs when employment densities rise above 75 workers per acre. Their findings suggest that critical thresholds in urban densities exist, above which public transit becomes prevalent over private vehicles. Land use is also an important factor. Cities with heavily centralized business districts tend to favor public transport systems, while cities with decentralized economic activity tend to be more motorized.
These findings agree with those of Kenworthy and Hu (2002), who provide a comparative overview of global land-use and transport patterns. 78 cities (all outside of China) were analyzed and grouped according to region. It was found that North America had the most heavily motorized cities, with private motor vehicles accounting for an average of 88.5% of trips in US and Canadian metro regions. Public transit, not including walking and cycling, accounted for only 3.4 % of all trips. In contrast, Asian cities had 35.9% of trips made on private vehicles, and 31.8% on public transport. The increased use of public transport (and reduction of motorization) corresponded with increased levels of urban density. American cities had an average density of 15 persons per hectare, while Asian cities had a much higher 204 persons per hectare. In a separate paper, Newman and Kenworthy (1999) suggest that cities with more than 100 persons per hectare cannot depend on automobiles as the primary mode of transportation.
Similarly, the development of transport systems plays a role in the spatial growth of urban areas. Muller (1986) traces the suburban expansion of metropolitan Chicago from 1850 to 1969, in an effort to identify spatial growth patterns. The period between 1880 and 1920, which corresponds to the introduction of the electric streetcar, was characterized by increasing urban density in the city center, and axial growth along the main trolley lines. This gave the city a distinct star-shape. The period after 1920, which corresponds to the age of the automobile, saw gradual decentralization as the fringes developed more rapidly than the city center. Spatially, the city expanded in radial fashion, filling in the inter-axial gaps from before to form a circular pattern. Similar growth patterns were observed in Boston, Philadelphia, and other American cities.
Muller (1986) explains how the development of different transportation systems at different times affected these growth patterns. The introduction of the electric tram in the 1880’s sparked a spatial transformation in the city by providing the first true mass transit. It created economies of agglomeration and density by giving a critical mass of workers access to the city center, which became the central business district. The city then grew from the center out along the main trolley corridors. The introduction of automobiles, however, had a drastically different effect. Travel was no longer dictated by the spatial placement of the rail lines, and the increased flexibility of commuters allowed the city to grow in a radial fashion. Residents were lured away from the noise and pollution of the industrial city center into the suburbs, resulting in decentralization. The resulting decrease in urban density established the automobile as the preferred mode of transport in America, even after the advent of rapid transit systems.
Mueller’s explanations are not supported by rigorous statistical regression, but do provide the reader with a basic model of American urban transport eras and associated growth patterns. Although specific only to the United States, this model still provides an important framework with which we can compare cities in China.
Urbanization and Transport Patterns in China
In their paper, Kenworthy and Hu (2002) identify the key factors that drive Chinese urban policy. First, despite its large size, China is severely land and resource scarce. Second, compared to the West, China has a strong centralized government that is better able to implement policy. Third, many Chinese cities have well defined urban centers with long cultural, historical and architectural heritage.
The authors go on to explain the policy implications that result from these factors. The most important is the Land Management Law, which was formulated in order to “protect and exploit land resources, (…), strictly protect the arable land, and promote social and economic sustainability.” The next implication is on urban policy. Chinese urban planning laws strictly dictate the per-capita land-use of new developments, and in general the density of urban development is not allowed to fall below 100 persons per hectare. Such policies are put in place to prevent the massive urban sprawl observed in North America, which would severely restrict the arable land available for cultivation in China. It also restrains the excessive use of land for both inter- and intra-urban infrastructure.
The paper continues with a description of Chinese transport policies. Government reports indicate that the Chinese government has been attempting to promote public transport development in its cities. As of 2000, over twenty cities have plans to develop urban rail projects. Subsidies have been provided for public transport providers, and in a pilot project, bus services were privatized in the city of Xiamen, which saw increased ridership from 70 million to 170 million, and increased revenue from 1.25 million RMB to 6.08 million RMB. However, Kenworthy and Hu observe that the government has also taken interest in developing the national auto industry, and there was growing public discussion on whether to promote the automobile as a “pillar of industry”. For instance, a director in the Ministry of Machinery Industry quoted Japan as an example of how “a large population and lack of land is not a limitation for private car ownership”. In an effort to alleviate traffic congestion, China has also embarked on an extensive road-building project, which ultimately increases motorization. In light of this, Kenworthy and Hu note that a variety of policy conflicts still exist in Chinese transport planning.
Implications for Future Urban Form and Transport in China
The above literatures suggest important differences between the present-day urbanization of China and the historical urbanization of North America. A key distinction is the huge disparity in population sizes. Present-day China has over 1.3 billion people, compared to 76 million Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. Population pressure has created tremendous land constraints in Chinese cities, restricting their ability to grow spatially. In contrast, American cities were free to expand during their period of urbanization. The scarcity of land in China is reflected in the Land Management Law and other urban policies (Kenworthy and Hu, 2002), which suggest that the Chinese government favors the development of high-density, urban agglomerations over low-density, suburban sprawl.
This leads us to the next difference between Chinese and American urbanization. One-party rule in China results in greater government intervention in urban development, and more effective implementation of urban policy. Legally, the state owns all land in China, and thus virtually all urban redevelopment is carried out by government entities. In contrast, the private sector played a primary role in shaping American cities. Cheap, unbuilt land at the fringe of cities represented prime business opportunities for residential developers, who were largely responsible for the development of suburbs (Muller, 1986). Local governments in China are more likely to develop the land around the urban core, since the basic urban infrastructure would already be in place. The historical heritage of Chinese cities, coupled with greater public investment in infrastructure and amenities, means that urban growth tends to concentrate around the city center. This results in compact, dense metropolises. Similar patterns of growth are observed in European cities, which also possess rich historical heritage and amenities (Brueckner, 1997).
The rapid motorization of the United States was catalyzed by the prevailing low-density, decentralized urban form of American metropolises. The findings of Frank and Pivo (1994) suggest that public transit would be the most viable form of transport in the high-density, centralized urban form of Chinese cities. Kenworthy and Hu (2002) also discussed the challenges faced by a motorized China. China lacks the large amounts of land required to develop the roads, highways, and parking spaces that are needed to accommodate a large automobile fleet. China also lacks the oil to power automobiles, and increased motorization would mean an increased reliance on foreign imports of oil. Finally, urban air pollution in China is already among the worse in the world1, and increased emissions from automobiles could make Chinese cities unlivable2. Rapid motorization on the scale of the US is thus unlikely in urban China.
Critics of public transit systems claim that they are almost always a “waste of taxpayer dollars” (O’Toole, 2010). O’Toole, for example, presents data showing that investment in public transit in American cities have delivered negligible public benefits, and generally fail to provide “cost-effective transportation”. I would argue that due to differences in urban geography, O’Tooles findings cannot be applied to Chinese cities. In his paper, O’Toole himself admits “rail transit is profitable in Hong Kong and Tokyo, two cities that are far denser than anywhere in the United States.” The examples of these two Asian cities, with similar levels of urban density to cities in China, instead provide successful models of public transit that Chinese cities can emulate.
Another important consideration is the low per capita income of China. Although ranked 2nd in terms of overall GDP, China is only 99th in terms of per capita GDP (IMF, 2009). This means that while the state has the resources and capital to invest heavily in transport infrastructure, the majority of Chinese citizens still lack the financial means to own private vehicles. Local governments also have political incentive to develop public transit systems, since such projects are highly visible and usually popular among citizens.
Empirical evidence shows that China is indeed investing heavily in public transportation. China has invested approximately 2.6% of its GDP on urban infrastructure since 1994 (Freemark, 2010). Both intra- and inter- urban transport networks have been expanded. Eleven Chinese cities now operate rapid transit systems, with dozens more under construction. China now has the longest high-speed rail network in the world, as well as the longest metro system in the world (Shanghai).
It is hypothesized that the development of public transport systems in China would reinforce the prevailing urban policy of dense, compact urban development. A model of spatial growth can be adapted from Muller (1986), who described the growth of Chicago during the age of the streetcar. Such growth would be highly centralized and compact, expanding axially along the main transit lines. Chinese cities however, would grow much larger and denser than twentieth century Chicago, since modern transit systems have greater reach, speeds, and capacity than the old streetcars.
Urban and transport policy can thus be integrated into a sustainable system of urbanization for China. Dense urban populations are characterized by lower per capita consumption of energy, mainly due to the decrease in transport distances (Frank and Pivo, 1994). Public transport is more energy efficient than private motor transport, but more importantly, also encourages greater urban density. A positive cycle can thus be created, in which the benefits of public transport and urban agglomeration mutually augment to reduce pollution and energy consumption.
The urbanization of modern China underlies the huge socio-economic transformations that are happening in the country. It is clear, however, that this urbanization cannot be sustained if China follows the US model of city growth. Geographical constraints limit the spatial extent to which Chinese cities can expand. Environmental concerns limit the level of motorization in the country. Literature suggests that given these constraints, China would likely develop dense, compact metropolises, and rely heavily on public transit as the main mode of transport. Urban policy and land-use laws, coupled with the recent investments in public transport infrastructure, seem to suggest that the Chinese government is indeed pursuing such a model of growth. The synergy of urban agglomeration and public transport, together with the powerful state mechanisms of the Chinese government, serve to ensure that such growth patterns will continue into the foreseeable future.
More research must be undertaken to validate these hypotheses. A proper analysis of the effects of public transit in Chinese cities on urban form should be conducted to test the above models. Also, the proposed models do not take into account the rising incomes (and thus changing tastes) of the Chinese consumer. Neither do they take into account the possibility of a drastic change in the political climate. Such changes may influence prevailing urban and transport policies, thus affecting the modal choice of transportation and spatial growth of cities.
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Muller, Peter O. "Transportation and Urban Form: Stages in the Spatial Evolution of the American Metropolis." The Geography of Urban Transportation. Comp. Susan Hanson. New York: Guilford, 1986. Print.
Supplementary References Brueckner, Jan K., Thisse, Jacques-Francois, and Zenou, Yves. "Why is Central Paris Rich and Downtown Detroit Poor? An Amenity-Based Theory." European Economic Review (1999). Web. 22 Sept. 2010.
Freemark, Yonah. "China Expands Its Investment in Rapid Transit, Paving Way For Future Urban Growth." The Transport Politic (2010). Web. 1 Dec 1997
Giuliano, Genevieve. "Land Use Impacts of Transportation Investments: Highway and Transit." The Geography of Urban Transportation. Comp. Susan Hanson. New York: Guilford, 1986. Print.
Newman, Peter, and Jeffrey R. Kenworthy. Sustainability and Cities: Overcoming Automobile Dependence. Washington, D.C.: Island, 1999. Print.
O'Toole, Randal. "Defining Success: The Case Against Rail Transit." Policy Analysis 663 (2010). Web.
"Preparing for China’s Urban Billion." McKinsey Global Institute. McKinsey & Company, Mar. 2008. Web. 22 Sept. 2010.
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1 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China (World Bank, 2004)
2 CO levels in Beijing are already 100% above the national standard (Kenworthy and Hu, 2002)