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A “new normal” for sustainable transport in Chinese cities
With the right government leadership, the new normal for sustainable transport in Chinese cities will include more transit-oriented development, shared mobility services, and transport innovations from the private sector. Photo by Taro Taylor/Flickr.

With the right government leadership, the new normal for sustainable transport in Chinese cities will include more transit-oriented development, shared mobility services, and transport innovations from the private sector. Photo by Taro Taylor/Flickr.

As cities worldwide innovate to improve mobility, Chinese cities lag behind in adopting emerging sustainable transport solutions. Still, a number of concepts are set to become crucial to the future of urban transport in China. Transit-oriented development (TOD), innovative transit and shared mobility solutions to complement traditional mass transport, and private market innovation through information technologies are all primed to reshape Chinese cities and could create a more sustainable mobility future.

Chinese cities are late adopters of sustainable transport innovations

Globally, cities are avid innovators and adopters of transport breakthroughs. A recent study from EMBARQ – producer of TheCityFix – showed that many sustainable transport concepts like bike-share and bus rapid transit (BRT) are reaching tipping points and becoming more common. Nonetheless, the same study revealed that Chinese cities are not at the forefront of this trend: many sustainable transport solutions, such as congestion pricing, complete streets, and low emission zones have yet to be included in Chinese cities’ policy arsenals.

For transport innovation to become a widespread norm, it takes more than replication. Institutional barriers, contextual differences, capacity constraints, and path dependency are common roadblocks that prevent new ideas from being adopted in Chinese cities. Given these roadblocks, what are the sustainable transport pathways that fit the context of Chinese cities, and what emerging trends in sustainable transport can we expect for these cities?

The “new sustainable transport normal” in China

The recent Transit Metropolis Forum – administered by China’s Ministry of Transport – shed light on developments in urban transport in China. The Ministry’s Transit Metropolis program aims to promote transit-oriented development and high quality transit services in Chinese cities. With over 400 attendees, the Transit Metropolis Forum served as a peer-learning platform to explore state-of-the-art sustainable transport solutions, share emerging opportunities, and shape new trends. Solutions emerging from the forum discussion have the potential to be mainstreamed in Chinese cities in the years to come. In particular, three topics featured prominently in the forum discussions:

Transit-oriented development

Fueled by booming rail transit construction in China, transit-oriented Development – a strategy that promotes dense, mixed-use, and walkable development near transit stations – is gaining momentum. Shenzhen and Shanghai, among others, are spearheading TOD around transit stops.

Despite a small number of ad-hoc projects, multiple barriers exist to translate TOD from rhetoric to reality in China. Forum speakers admitted that many critical elements for successful TOD planning and implementation are missing. For example, rail transit plans are often developed without adjustments to city master/regulatory plans, and regulatory zoning codes around station areas are too rigid to allow for up-zoning or mixed land uses. Moreover, stakeholder engagement that matches projects to dynamic market demand is unfortunately absent in the current planning process.

Forum speakers suggested that future efforts should be geared towards reforming planning systems and working across silos to coordinate among different government departments and work with developers. Recent national policies have signaled positive changes to enable TOD. For instance, the recent issuing of the State Directive 64 opens the door for dense, commercial developments directly above and underneath regional railway stations, and allows for land value capture to support the otherwise costly railway construction.

Innovative transit services and shared mobility

Transit ridership in Chinese cities is expected to grow rapidly. Forum participants noticed that to accommodate this sharp rise in travel demand, the sole emphasis on subway expansion is insufficient; the future of urban mobility should be multimodal, integrated, and cater to varying travel needs.

A few mobility trends are gaining momentum in Chinese cities to complement subway systems. For example, BRT is now operating in 21 Chinese cities. The diversity of BRT system designs – which include systems on elevated highways, boulevards, and minor streets – show that technology and design innovations for BRT are endless. Another complementary transport option to subway systems is high-end commuting shuttle services. These services target high-income families and are also building momentum in China. Invented in Beijing, this flexible-route, subscription-based transit service provides both reliability and comfort that high-income households love, and has great potential to attract existing car drivers. Moreover, shared mobility options such as car-sharing and carpooling that were once restricted in Chinese cities have also recently grown.

Information technologies and the private market

Forum attendees highlighted great opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship by the private sector to provide “smart” sustainable transport solutions. Indeed, leveraging private sector innovation and investment can not only unlock business opportunities, but can also complement public policies.

Smartphone technology plays an increasingly prominent role in transport in Chinese cities, through smartphone apps to hail a taxi, track arriving buses, or vote for a proposed change in bus routes, and through providing “big data” that informs policy-making. For example, the popular taxi app Didi – developed by a grass-roots start-up in China – has achieved a large market share in only two years, receiving over 5.5 million daily orders, reducing CO2 emissions by 40 metric meters per day, and unlocking millions in private investments. Forum attendees also suggested that for these innovative services to be mainstreamed, governments must create proper incentives, ensure fair competition, and make data publicly available.

The impact of urban transport systems on economic opportunity, human wellbeing, and climate change are determined by the choices city leaders make today. Although the forum outlined possible trends in sustainable transport for Chinese cities, these transport solutions will require cities to have visionary leadership, creative thinking, and a vibrant market.

EMBARQ China is supporting this process by working in many Chinese cities to catalyze the adoption of innovative sustainable transport solutions like transit-oriented development and land value capture, low emission zones, BRT, and car-sharing. Read more about EMBARQ China’s work here.

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  • Excellent article. But I have to say, I’m not convinced that China is lagging behind others in promoting sustainable transport. As you mention, China is a leader in bike share and BRT, in smart transportation innovations like Didi (and Kuaidi) and in other policies such as limiting car registration. It’s true that TOD design has a long way to go, but that can be fairly said of almost every other country as well. Here’s to further improvement.

  • glohry

    Hey Lulu,

    Great Article and China is really moving to a new normal especially in Public and Non-motorized Transport

    I was wondering if you have looked directly at the numbers for reduced emissions from Didi or other Taxi app services. My impression is that taxi’s are actually driving longer distances without passengers to reach customers that are providing extra payment. If you try and get a taxi without the app, you see lots of people waiting and empty taxi’s that don’t stop because the app has not been used. I guess the other questions would be if the ease in ordering a taxi was shifting people from other more sustainable transport modes. Would be interesting to see if this was actually reducing emissions, and if you have done some work on this in Beijing?

    Thanks and cheers,

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