Recent years have witnessed a continuing population shift in America, as more people migrate from rural areas to urban settings. This trend, known as urbanization, is a result of several socioeconomic factors, including: the rising rate of unemployment in rural areas; the desire to be closer to services; and the industrialization of agriculture practices, which has driven out smaller farmers. This inward migration presents obvious stresses to the existing infrastructure — particularly transportation routes — requiring innovative solutions in what are often very tightly restrained and well-defined areas.
Similar dynamics are occurring in China, but at a much faster rate. China has responded to these pressures by investing in a major mass transit build-out, including redeveloping city layouts to better interface with these transportation corridors. While there are noted differences in how China may approach a project as compared to the United States (particularly with respect to environmental considerations), the scale, breadth and rate of China’s infrastructure development provides a model of what can be done to alleviate these pressures.
A Rapidly Urbanizing Nation
According to the World Resources Institute, by the year 2025 China isexpected to have 170 large-scale metropolitan areas. With this influx of people comes a significant transportation burden. The Chinese government has recognized mass transit as a means by which to accommodate the traveling needs of those urbanites. In the largest cities (more than 10 million people), the government aims to increase mass transit use to 60 percent from thecurrent 35 percent; in medium-sized cities (2 million), the goal is 40 percent from 24 percent; and in small cites (less than 1 million), 30 percent from 15 percent. In order to catch up, this rapidly urbanizing nation will require up to 3 million new buses, and 19,000 miles of new subway and rail tracks.
The heavy reliance on mass transit systems in China also helps toaddress the country’s ever-increasing carbon footprint. According to data released by the International Energy Agency just last month, China is now the leader in world energy consumption, surpassing the United States, years ahead of forecasts. China has also been the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases each year since 2006, with the country’s transport system being a major source of these emissions. A report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), titled “Promoting Environmentally Sustainable Transport in the People’s Republic of China,” says carbon dioxide emissions will double by 2020.
Mass transit provides a way to meet the transportation needs of the burgeoning urban population in a manner that will result in a smaller carbon footprint than low-occupancy vehicular travel. Likewise, the encouragement of urbanization itself (in part driven by the convenience provided by inner-city travel and other amenities) reduces the need for individual vehicle ownership and overall vehicle miles traveled. People live closer to their place of work and city services, and can rely on a well-connected transit system for their transportation needs.
Implementing Bus Rapid Transit
According to the aforementioned ADB report, buses provide the majority of public transport services in China. And while most cities have formal bus networks, a greater percentage of passenger trips are conducted informally on smaller vehicles, which provide a cheap, convenient service since a large number are willing to pick up and drop passengers at any point along routes. However, these vehicles are often inadequately operated and maintained, which leads to traffic flow obstructions, and high quantities of pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions.
China has begun implementing bus rapid transit (BRT) systems, which increase speed and safety, and diminish pollution. In addition, mechanisms are being put in place to monitor the performance of bus transport systems, which feature data collection and analysis mode that monitor passenger- and vehicle-miles traveled, activities in subsectors and routes, and environmental performance.