The Dawning of a New Era

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.

Growing urban centers are readily embracing BRT concepts. Forexample, in Lanzhou, a northwestern city of 3.3 million, a comprehensive transport project will link a new city center with a rapid bus transport system. The CleanTech Group indicates that the project will create 22 kilometers of bus lanes, and include the installation of advanced traffic control and pollution monitoring systems. Chinese officials are expecting the project to cost $480 million and be completed by the end of 2014.

The Chinese government is also promoting the use of vehicles powered by non-petroleum alternatives such as biofuels, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), compressed natural gas (CNG) and electricity. According to the ADB report, as of 2005, China had a total of 97,200 CNG vehicles, with light-duty vehicles (cars) accounting for 48 percent and buses 52 percent. Although relatively small in terms of overall numbers, CNG- and LPG-fueled vehicles are starting to make a positive impact on vehicle emissions in some cities. This is largely due to the government’s emphasis on targeting buses and other fleet vehicles, such as taxis, for CNG and LPG use.

Chengdu is one such example of where such emphasis is bearing results. Back in May, the Chengdu Commercial Daily newspaper reported the city debuted its first fully electric-powered bus. The 12-meter-long bus is designed to carry 70 passengers and travel 260 kilometers before needing to recharge. A city bus generally travels no more than 260 kilometers per day. The city of 11 million people plans to phase out gas-powered governmental vehicles and replace them with electric vehicles. Guidelines for the electric vehicle industry in the city of Chengdu state that by 2012, 250 electric-powered buses, 1,300 electric-powered cabs and 350 electric-powered state vehicles should be in use.

Bio-ethanol gasoline, a mixture of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline, is also being used in China. Currently, several Chinese provinces have made the fuel mandatory at local petrol pumps. Overall, the National Development and Reform Commission predicted that Chinese consumption of alternative fuels will reach 10 million tons by 2020, accounting for 15 percent of the demand in the transport sector.

Despite these efforts, China is still the world’s fastest-growing oil consumer. The goal is to keep China’s total oil consumption below 400 million metric tons per year.

An Expanding Rail Network

On an urban scale, the railway system has seen tremendous growth over the past two decades. Up until 1989, the country had just three metro lines: two in Beijing and one in Tianjin. Since then, 22 metro or light rail lines were constructed in 10 cities. According to the ADB report, 36 additional urban rail transport lines (for a total length of 1,500 kilometers and at a cost of $67 billion) are under construction in 15 different cities. In Beijing, three new subway lines, and a light rail connecting downtown and the airport were added in preparation for the Olympics. Meanwhile in Shanghai, plans for the 2010 World Expo included expanding the metro system and linking sections of the city with the airport via a Maglev train.

Maglev — short for “magnetic levitation” — is a transportation technology in which a magnetized coil running along the track (called a guideway) repels large magnets on the train’s undercarriage. This allows the train to levitate above the guideway. Once the train is levitated, power is supplied to the coils within the guideways, creating a system of magnetic fields that pull and push the train along the corridor. Since Maglev trains float on a cushion of air, there is minimal friction, which allows the trains to travel at extraordinarily high speeds.

The first commercial Maglev train made its test debut in Shanghai in 2002 and its first commercial run about a year later. The train currently runs to and from the Longyang Road station (located southeast of the city center) and Pudong airport. Traveling at an average speed of 430 kilometers per hour, the 30-kilometer journey takes less than 10 minutes.

The placement of these light rail networks and their interface with other transportation modes are also planned in an effort to further optimize their efficiencies. For example, the ADB report describes how passenger transport is separated from freight on busy truck lines to increase capacity and improve service levels.

Infrastructure Design in a New Era

China’s booming economy and infrastructure build-out is developing during a time of transitioning paradigms. Ongoing migration from rural areas to urban centers will continue to redefine the country’s demographics. Additionally, what were once the traditional mainstays of industrialization and development — principally the dependence on fossil fuels and their ancillary carbon emissions — are now recognized to carry significant risks within the political, economic and public health arenas alike.

It is within this context that China must develop its national infrastructure. As with all industrialized nations, transportation is paramount to the country’s economic vitality. It is a credit to the Chinese government that the connectivity between mass transit and better living is so strongly reflected in its national goals. 


Lisa C. Dickson, PG, is a principal scientist and area manager for Kleinfelder/S E A Consultants, one of the nation’s leading civil and environmental engineering and architecture firms. Over the past 15 years, Dickerson has worked on complex projects within the transportation, military and municipal sectors. She currently manages the firm’s sustainability program.