Urban Mobility in China: Transporting China’s 1.3 Billion People

The world’s most populous country continues to develop at a breakneck pace, and even the recent economic slowdown hasn’t hampered the expansion of its extensive transportation infrastructure. Transportation, like much of China, has been completely changed over the past century, especially as China’s urban population has exploded. With China’s 1st and 2nd tier cities already congested, plagued by emission related smog, and seeing increased incidents of road rages, the question of how to deliver sustainable and efficient urban transport systems to the more than 1 billion expected urban residents (in 2050) is one of China’s greatest challenges going forward.

Through this post, we look to introduce developments of China’s major transport systems to understand the constraints, challenges, and opportunities for development of China’s automotive, high-speed rail, air travel and metro systems.

In the midst of change

Many trends are combining to create an environment less welcoming for individual transportation, and more welcoming for innovative, sustainable solutions. Some of the major trends we can see shaping transportation in China are:

  • Urbanization – As cities continue to expand and populations become denser, commuting distances are growing and parking spots for cars are becoming more expensive and harder to find.
  • Road Conditions – The finite road space in Chinese cities is becoming increasingly crowded. With this increase in traffic, travel times are growing, as are concerns of road safety.
  • Government Regulations – Regulatory bodies at all levels of government are increasing regulations in vehicle ownership and operation, especially automotive, in an attempt to improve road conditions and favor more sustainable alternatives. The process of acquiring a license plate in many cities is extremely difficult, and in many cases can be almost as expensive as buying the actual car.
  • Environmentalism – Tied to government regulations is an overall push for increasing awareness of the various modes of transportation and their effects on the environment. As air pollution reaches an all-time high in many cities, popular sentiment has started to swing in favor of more sustainable transportation.
  • Public Transportation – Colossal investment in public transportation has led to world-class transit in many areas around China, especially high-speed rail and local metro systems in major cities.
  • Technology – The smartphone has become a necessity for the average consumer, and with that, car sharing/rental and other mobile platforms are increasingly viable.

The overall impacts of these trends are varied, but a principle one is the shift away from individual car ownership as the most desired mode of transit. Just like any major systemic shift, many opportunities are created as well. Both general industry and the population of China are spreading further and further throughout the nation, away from the coast and into the heart of China. In this sense, the growth of Chinese transportation infrastructure translates into economic development for the country. This has been the case in the nation’s past as well.

Automotive transport

Nothing better describes the explosive growth of China as the rise of the Chinese automotive industry. Virtually only belonging to government officials through the 20th century, the car used to be a unique symbol of power and wealth. Even now, cars are unaffordable for much of the population, especially the luxury cars that are so abundant in major cities. Still, China has about as many drivers as the entire population of the United States. It’s done wonders for the economy, but 300 million drivers on the road is a strain on more than just the roads. Now countering their previous incentives, various governmental bodies have increased regulations in order to deter traditional vehicle ownership and promote electric vehicles and other modes of transportation.

High-speed rail

One such method of transportation is China’s pride and joy, their high-speed rail (HSR) system. Defined as commercial train service with speeds over 200 km/h (124 m/h), China’s HSR system is the most developed in the world. In fact, China has the world’s longest HSR network, longer than the rest of the world’s HSR track combined. It’s also the most used system in the world, as it is very popular with the local population. Popular opinion holds it over commercial flight as the preferred method of transport, citing cost as the principle reason. Despite a major accident that drew attention to corruption surrounding the sector, investment has continued under new oversight.

Commercial flight

Air transport in China has had a similar amount of investment as well over the past decade. China has the fastest growing passenger air market in the world, only second in a number of passengers carried to the United States. Although China’s population has more mixed feelings about air transport, there’s no sign of this growth stopping anytime soon.

Metro systems

Fitting in with the pattern, China’s metro systems are among the busiest on earth, with 4 out of the top 10 busiest systems in the world.  Shanghai takes the most extensive metro in the world as well, with Beijing coming in a close second. Already feeling the strain, these metro systems are constantly renovating to keep up with the cities’ growing populations. 38 cities in China have or are designated to receive metro systems in the near future. Many of these newer systems are revolutionizing travel in China’s smaller cities, making room for increased economic development and innovation.

Looking forward

China’s transportation systems have been revolutionized in the last 60 years. In order to cope with 1 billion urban residents by 2025, they must continue to change. Car ownership is still greatly sought after in China but is not truly sustainable on a large scale. As macro trends shape the future of transportation in China, we must all do our best to secure innovative solutions that are developed with long-term sustainability in mind. In order to fully address the system as a whole one must understand the individual sectors and how they can be developed in order for the macro picture to function in an efficient sustainable manner. Over the coming weeks, we will address each individual area of the transport system, contextualizing their role in the development of a truly sustainable transport ecosystem.

The article was written by Rachel Sorenson, Research Analyst at Collective Responsibility.

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