China Series Part 4: City-shaping

This is Part 4 in this week’s China Series. You can see the previous parts here: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 

China has learned many valuable lessons from its growth. Among the biggest: you can’t just respond to demand for a certain kind of transport.

beijign traffic sunset
Too much of a good thing

Beijing built a series of ring roads between the 1980s and today. There are six in the city.

Loads of new tarmac coincided with a boom in wealth. That meant an explosion in car ownership and traffic that got out of control.

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 11.48.34 am

China has tried to respond with rules to limit traffic and car ownership, such as quotas. But they have not always worked.

killer smog
Killer smog, 2013

beijing subway interior

But that does not mean Beijing has given up. When I was in Beijing in 2003, there were just three subway lines. Now there are a dozen.

New stations are popping up everywhere like a game of whack-a-mole. On our holiday in 2013, we picked up a subway map (actually it said subwang) at our accommodation, and it was already out of date.

beijing subwang

This is something Australia could learn from. When you build a road to solve a traffic jam, that road will likely last until the collapse of the civilisation it supports.

Sydney’s George St is now over 200 years old. There are just a handful of examples of freeway removal worldwide. A road lasts longer than a building, longer than the technology that uses it, longer by far than the average road engineer.

What you are doing –  in the long run – is not “solving a traffic jam” but shaping your city.

People like to talk about induced traffic from new roads – “if you build it they will use it.” I don’t doubt this is partly true, but I think the long-run effect of a new road is far greater than whether or not you get your traffic jam back within 18 months.

This is why I am so excited about the prospects of improvements to rail networks. They can also last a very long time, and have long-run positive effects, not least of which is discouraging the building of more roads.

train stations beijingBut while Beijing’s improvements are underway (see right), Melbourne’s are just on paper.

The city-shaping effects of an efficient metro system in Melbourne would be huge. But a great deal of political change will have to happen for it to get built.

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thomasthethinkengine

Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

3 thoughts on “China Series Part 4: City-shaping”

  1. I think there are 180+ cars per 100 households in Melbourne.
    Maybe this is why rail is not a huge priority for pollies. That, and because fewer than 10% of households report having no car.

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  2. Interesting series. Despite the high rates of car use and car ownership there is still quite a lot of support for more public transport, even if the people supporting it want other people to use it.
    There are some interesting demographic changes happening that might influence support for public transport – higher density town centres, older first-time parents, ageing baby boomers and migration from countries without a strong car culture. There is also the increasing incompetence of drivers caused by technology and congestion/density reducing the utility of the car in cities like Melbourne. The driverless car may combat this depending on whether it makes a noticeable impact in the next decade which is far from certain.

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