China: More Mobility with Fewer Cars through a GEF Grant
Since our days in school, we have often been told to first define our terms before doing anything else. China is a country that does not shy away from acronyms, and “TOD,” or transit-oriented development—a concept that merges land use and transport planning—is one such acronym that has become wildly popular within the field of urban development.
So, recently, when government officials from seven Chinese cities and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development gathered to launch the China Sustainable Cities Integrated Approach Pilot Project on the topic of TOD, it was clear that they all had the same definition of this three-letter acronym.
As one of over 20 million people who work and live in Beijing, China, I used to find commuting to work in rush-hour traffic rather painful. However, things have changed dramatically since last year. Now I can bypass the traffic by riding a shared bike to the closest metro station and make better use of public transit. Similar change is happening to my family and friends.
The unprecedented booming of dockless shared bikes in China presents a promising solution to the “last-mile problem” that has perplexed city planners for years: providing easier access to the mass transit system while ensuring good ridership. Thanks to the GPS tracking device installed on thousands of dockless shared bikes, city planners in China are now equipped with new and better information to analyze the demand for—and the performance of—public transit systems. For the first time, city managers can clearly map out the attractiveness and accessibility of metro stations by analyzing individual-level biking trips.
Revisiting the scope of TOD. A commonly accepted textbook definition of the core area of TOD is an 800-meter radius around the metro station or other types of public transit hubs. This definition is based on the distance that can be reached by a 10-minute walk. However, the actual catchment of a metro station can reach a 2-3 km radius when biking prevails, as in Demark and Netherland. Our analysis illustrates that a big chunk of biking trips around metro stations even go beyond the 3km radius (see bright blue traces in Figure 1 below). This indicates that the spatial scope of planning and design around the metro stations should be contextualized. Accordingly, the price premium associated with adjacency to public transit service is more likely to be shared by a broader range of nearby real estate properties than expected.
In a world divided over how to deal with such serious problems as terrorism, immigration, free trade, and climate change, governments agree on the urgency of solving what is arguably the biggest problem of all: supplying safe, well-located, and affordable housing for the billions of people who need it.
There is even agreement on the basic steps to that goal: improving land management and adopting more tenure-neutral policies.
There is also consensus on the fact that government alone cannot afford to pay the bill. According to McKinsey & Co., the annual price tag for filling the “global housing gap” ($1.6 trillion) is twice the cost of the global investments needed in public infrastructure to keep pace with GDP growth.
Urbanization and rising incomes have been driving rapid motorization across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. While cities are currently home to 50% of the global population, that proportion is expected to increase to 70% by 2050. At the same time, business-as-usual trends suggest we could see an additional 1 billon cars by 2050, most of which will have to squeeze into the already crowded streets of Indian, Chinese, and African cities.
If no action is taken, these cars threaten literally to choke tomorrow’s cities, bringing with them a host of negative consequences that would seriously undermine the overall benefits of urbanization: lowered productivity from constant congestion; local pollution and rising carbon emissions; road traffic deaths and injuries; rising inequity and social division.
However, after a century of relatively small incremental progress, disruptive changes in the world of automotive technology could have fundamental implications for sustainability.
What are these megatrends, and how can they reshape the future of urban mobility?
A freshly-minted architect stood staring at a sea of toilets. Row after row of them, on small “housing plots” meant for low-income families who would build their house incrementally as their incomes and savings grew. The neighborhood was “planned” and provided with services—under a World Bank-supported “sites and services” project—to serve as the anti-thesis of and an antidote to the slums that were, at the time, increasingly becoming the only housing option for low-income families.
It was 1980 and the architect, Barjor Mehta, was deeply disappointed. There were no houses, no people and no chance that they would ever come, given the seemingly god-forsaken location—in an area called Arrumbakkam—so far from the city center in Madras (now Chennai). Having just completed his thesis on housing, he wrote a scathing news article in the Times of India denouncing the sites and services approach. Barjor wasn’t alone in his critique, and by the mid-1990s the World Bank had almost entirely abandoned such projects.
In October 2015, Barjor, now Lead Urban Specialist at the Bank, invited me to revisit Arumbakkam and other neighborhoods developed, between 1977 and 1997, under four Bank-supported sites and services projects:
With my colleagues Kate Owens and Andrea Rizvi, I visited 15 of the 28 sites developed in Chennai and Mumbai. We also reviewed archival material, analyzed satellite images, and recently presented our preliminary findings (download a peer-reviewed journal article here). Now, Barjor and I agree that previous assessments of failure may have been both premature and erroneous.
In Nepal, indigenous groups produced a range of training materials, including videos in local languages on forests and climate change, to help more than 100 women and community leaders in the Terai, Hill and Mountain areas better understand what terms like ‘mitigation and adaptation strategies for climate resilience’ mean for them in their daily lives.
A team of consultants in Kenya, who are members of indigenous communities with an understanding of regional politics and geographical dynamics, worked on increasing community involvement in sustainable forest management through workshops and face-to-face meetings. As part of their work, they collected information on land tenure status within indigenous territories, which will help the country prepare a national strategy for reducing emissions from deforestation.
Over the next decade and a half the world will add a staggering 1.1 billion people to its towns and cities. About one half of this urbanization will happen in the regions of East and South Asia.
If history is any guide, this growth in urban population will provide tremendous opportunities for increasing prosperity and livability. One can look at the successes of a few Asian cities such as Tokyo, Seoul, and Singapore to demonstrate how, with the assistance of good policies, urbanization and economic development go hand-in-hand. More generally, no major country has ever reached middle-income status without also experiencing substantial urbanization.
Yet cities can grow in different ways that will affect their competitiveness, livability, and sustainability. The more successful cities of Asia have been effective at creating opportunities, increasing productivity, fostering innovation, providing efficient and affordable services for residents, and enhancing public spaces to create vibrant and attractive places to live. But many, many, more cities have neglected fundamental investments in critical infrastructure and basic services, and have mismanaged land, environmental and social policies. This has resulted in traffic congestion, sprawl, slums, pollution, and crime.
Among the many complexities of urban development that have contributed to success, two critical factors stand out – investing in strategic urban planning, and in good urban governance.
Accessibility analysis is an essential element of understanding cities and public service delivery. Activity‐based accessibility measures relate to the distribution of activities (for example, jobs or schools) in a given space, and the ease of reaching these activities. This type of measure directly relates to the qualities of a multi-modal transport system (e.g. transport network, speeds and costs), but also includes the qualities of the land‐use system (e.g. distribution of land uses, and thus activities), and allows for a spatial temporal multi-modal analysis based on changing land uses.
Accessibility offers a powerful lens to assess how a mobility system is serving an urban area. For example, road congestion is a more severe constraint in a dispersed setting with few transit, walking and cycling options (such as the Atlanta metropolitan area), compared to traditional mixed-use downtowns (such as New York City), where residents can access jobs and other opportunities walking, cycling and using mass transit.
Accessibility indicators are not just conceptually powerful – they are also easy to operationalize: the number of jobs accessible within a 60-minute timeframe is a popular and powerful indicator to evaluate how well the mobility system is serving a particular spatial area, or group of people (such as the most vulnerable).
China has a long tradition of burying the dead and building tombs to honor them. This ancient practice, however, has recently been butting heads with modernity as the Chinese government now needs to conserve limited land for farming and development to support its people. In an effort to use land more effectively, the government launched a campaign to encourage cremation instead of burial, and authorities demanded that a minimum number of corpses be cremated each year, based on the total population of the previous year.
The campaign, however, led to unexpected results. At the start of November, two officials in China’s Guangdong province were arrested for allegedly buying corpses in order to meet the strict cremation quotas. Police from Beiliu City in Guangxi Province began investigating the theft of bodies in the region during the summer and apprehended a grave robber named Zhong in July. Zhong admitted to stealing more than 20 bodies from the graveyards of local villages in Guangxi at night. He then transported the bodies to Guangdong province to the east, where he sold them to two local officials. These two officials, He and Dong, were formally in charge of funeral management reform in the province and were arrested for purchasing the corpses with the intent of delivering them to a funeral parlor for cremation on the official registry.
Compare this to public school teachers in the United States who cheated on standardized test scores by illegally viewing tests ahead of the test date and changing their students’ answers to meet high yearly targets for student progression.
Recently, as part of a broader cost cutting initiative, World Bank management decided to do away with a long standing policy of subsidizing parking for its employees. Those of us who work on the Bank’s transport projects and help cities develop more sustainable mobility systems saw this is as a welcome development… losing some friends in the process.
This personal example, along with a recently completed pilot we conducted on corporate mobility programs, inspired us to share some insights on the dramatic role parking-related regulations and incentives can play in influencing the decisions made by all stakeholders with regard to modal choice –whether it be private developers, property managers, employers or employees: