China’s future is, significantly, an urban future. By 2030, one billion Chinese will live in cities, and cities are the economic engine of the country. The form of these cities, then, will determine how China prospers. China’s energy patterns, water use and even agriculture will all be driven by choices made in urban form.
Brilliantly designed cities, with high-quality buildings, generous public spaces, a lively mix of uses, world-class transportation, and clean air and water are truly the basis of a prosperous economy and a harmonious society. That seems like a long, even utopian, list. But it turns out that a few, crucially important choices, made early on, can deliver those qualities. Failing that task will leave China with decidedly worse prospects.
What are those key choices? How can urban form drive agriculture, water, and energy? Surveying cities across the world, including in China, makes the answers clear.
Begin the simple question of urban layout. Imagine two competing models of urban design, each housing the same number of citizens in the same area. One model isolates each use from the other, with housing in some neighborhoods, shopping in others, and business in still others. Each use is concentrated in “super-blocks,” the half-kilometer compounds that we see in many new developments in China. These super-blocks are linked with enormous, multi-lane boulevards.
It doesn’t take much imagination to understand that this choice of layout creates a car-dependent economy. People have to cover long distances to shop, go to work, visit a clinic, and take the kids to school. What is less obvious is that even large boulevards become quickly congested due to the lack of smaller secondary roads. All traffic is concentrated on main road. Paralyzing traffic jams result. Recent studies in China show that this isolate layout with superblocks creates a trebling of transportation energy, compared to mixed uses with a more permeable transportation network.
Unfortunately, this pattern incites more of the same. The inevitable traffic jams create calls for more lanes, more highways, and so forth. The economic gains made by developers and the fact that mayors in China have been judged by narrow economic indicators and not not broader measures of livability propels the process forward. And this cycle creates large energy demands, consumes large amounts of land and open space, and displaces the agricultural lands surrounding the city.
The alternative architecture is to mix uses, develop a rich network of transportation options on more, but smaller, streets, and ensure that each neighborhood features parks, recreation, shopping, and the like. By creating neighborhoods that meet the majority of daily needs, and which are attractive for all ages, at all hours, it is possible to cut traffic and increase the quality of life. Smaller blocks with small streets make biking, walking, and public transportation more feasible.
So, besides the energy and land savings, the big bonus to this kind of configuration is that it is much more livable. It turns out that people like neighborhoods with many different options – shopping, work, school, healthcare, recreation, and housing all intermingled. And, not surprisingly, providing mobility for all citizens, not just those with cars, is important to the quality of life. Fewer than 1 in 20 Chinese currently own a car, yet most Chinese cities already suffer terrible traffic jams. It’s simple math to see that more cars will only exacerbate the situation.
After urban layout, one must consider transportation. No one is satisfied with the state of the field today. The three answers are simple in concept, low in cost, but require sophisticated execution. They are: First class public transit, including vus rapid transit, walking, and biking.
Public transit cannot be an afterthought. It must be a core consideration of any Chinese city. To successfully compete against the car, public transit must be fast, clean, reliable, safe, and convenient. Metro lines are a great step in the right direction. They should be complemented with a rethink of buses—employing bus rapid transit.
Bus rapid transit (BRT) is a sophisticated engineering approach that produces subway speeds and capacity at only five to 10 percent of the cost of a subway. That is a big deal: the same capacity with 90 percent cost reduction is an urban game changer.
作者简介：霍尔·哈维（Hal Harvey）是能源创新：政治与技术有限责任公司（Energy Innovation: Policy and Technology LLC）首席执行官，保尔森中心（Paulson Institute）高级研究员。
To see how this works, check out the new BRT in Guangzhou. It hauls 800,000 passengers per day, more than any metro line in the city—but it was built in only nine months. How does BRT achieve this? A half-dozen requirements must be met: First, the buses need exclusive access to the middle lanes. Exclusive to avoid traffic conflicts with cars, and the middle lanes to avoid delays caused by turning cars. The buses are equipped with transponders that turn lights green as they approach. These two innovations alone give them travel speeds close to metros.
Then, buses roll into stations, not stops. The difference? People pay to get into a station, rather than to get into a bus. So the bus need not wait for the fare. The buses themselves are double or triple long, with a wall of doors, and they pull up to platforms level with the bus. The wall of doors opens, everyone piles off and on, just like a subway.
Another dozen refinements await: electronic ticketing, sophisticated control systems and dispatch, coordination with feeder systems, bike and pedestrian links, and so forth. Putting this all together is not expensive, but requires great sophistication. When you get it right, a cheap, fast, high-quality transportation system emerges.
It must be noted that BRT requires a commitment to smart design at the start, and smart management throughout. And BRT is not a replacement for metros, but a great supplement.
Public transit is crucial, but is not the right thing for all trips or all people. The other two solutions have a deep history in China, and across the world: Biking and walking. These are mundane. They are also cheap, healthy, quiet, accessible to all, emit zero carbon, and help make neighborhoods more livable. That’s a pretty nice set of attributes.
The iron rule of transportation is: If you build it, they will come. Los Angeles built endless highway miles, and has endless traffic jams. Copenhagen built bike paths, and even though the climate there is rarely lovely, has 40% of trips by bike. China needs to revert to some old, brilliant habits, and create bike lanes everywhere. The payback in mobility, clean air, health, and quality of life will be profound. Trips of under 4 kilometers are ideal for a bike. The new e-bikes can easily double that range. And an eight kilometer radius covers over 200 km-sq of ground.
But if biking is dangerous, people will stop. Competing with cars on a bike is never fun, and is usually dangerous. Bicyclists use space more efficiently than any other mode of transportation, but they do require space.
Finally comes the most basic mode of all: Walking. Every trip starts and ends with a walk, so city planners need to make that a reasonable choice. The formula is easy, if often neglected: Small blocks and small streets; shade; mixed uses; decent sidewalks.
These three strategies—first class public transport, biking, and walking—together offer a high-quality alternative to the car. Any time spent in China’s traffic jams should convince mayors of just how important that is. But, as the mayors of many Chinese and international cities recognize, this needs to be complemented by car control. Simple economics argues that if you underprice something, it will be overused. Pricing streets and highways at zero creates congestion. That’s pretty simple. And that result is evident in most in China.
What are the right strategies for car control? There are a dozen flavors: London and Singapore have congestion pricing, charging cars to come into downtown areas at busy times. Shanghai strictly limits the number of new license plates it issues, making it very costly to register a car. Tokyo requires prospective car buyers to prove they have a parking place. San Francisco is experimenting with raising parking prices whenever they start to fill up. And Copenhagen turns the lights on streets into the city red for 7/8 of the time when it gets crowded.
The right strategy for China’s cities will be found by experimentation, and may differ from place to place. But having no strategy is a recipe for ever-longer traffic jams.
There is one core force that ties all these issues together: The way China finances its cities. Most tax revenue in China goes to the central government. Mayors need funds for water, sewage, streets, civic buildings, and for running the place, with police, building inspectors, and so forth. To raise this cash, they are forced to sell land to developers (long-term leases, technically).
And it is this transaction that is at the heart of today’s superblock, single-use, congestion-inducing development. For the mayors, it is far easier and expeditious to sell a large piece of land (typically a half-kilometer square, or 25 hectares) to a developer, and let the developer do all the planning, infrastructure, and design for that block. Developers, in turn, can move quickly and avoid hassles if they get to build the same structure, with a single use, in a dozen copies. Unfortunately, what makes short-term sense for the mayor and the developer fails the city.
The alternative is time-tested: City revenues for operation need to come from property tax, and for capital improvements, from bond markets. And both systems need to be transparent and publically accessible. More cutting edge solutions should also be adopted. China’s mayors should make greater use of pollution charges and charge fees to developers to reflect demands on public infrastructure. These will help create stable revenue streams while contributing to a healthier environment.
Wrap this all together, and four great benefits emerge: First, the cities are far more livable, with lively neighborhoods, less congestion, and better transportation alternatives. Second, energy use for transportation drops—by as much as two-thirds, and with it the attendant air pollution. Third and fourth, by containing sprawl, Chinese cities will use less water and consume less farmland. Some of the most productive farmlands in China lie outside the city boundaries: If these are turned into more housing compounds, they will exacerbate water shortages and displace farmers.
China’s development over the last three decades has been heroic in scope and scale, and in the economic transformations it has brought. This transformation needs the next turn—which must be for quality of life and preservation of the environment. And getting the cities right is the only way to do that.