Discovery Guides Areas


China and the Path to Environmental Sustainability
(Released August 2007)

  by Ethan Goffman  


Key Citations





Two decades ago any picture of Chinese transportation would have included a predominant place for the bicycle, and this is still true, only less so. While it is clear that the bicycle cannot be the central transport mode of a modern technological and industrial society, it is also clear that, in China, the opposite approach-at least one car for every family-is not sustainable. This is due to population density, and also because global supplies will not allow the kind of oil use per capita that is common in the United States. "China currently has eight vehicles per thousand people compared with the U.S.'s 780 vehicles per thousand-a ratio suggesting relentless pressure on oil markets in coming decades" (Parry & Anderson, 176) as the Chinese fleet expands. With over four times the population of the U.S., China simply must limit its automobile use to avoid inordinate fuel costs. Furthermore, the environmental impact of building a sufficient road network would be enormous.

street packed with bicycles
Bicycles remain a crucial mode of transportation
Nevertheless, much of China is charging ahead full-speed with automobile use. In 2002 China announced a plan to more than double their road network (Peoples), while annual car production "rose from 320,000 in 1995 to 2.6 million in 2005" (Flavin & Gardner, 5). Still many Chinese are aware of the problems, and some steps are being taken, as with China's recent adoption of fuel economy standards-beyond those of the U.S. (Agence).

Increased automobile use, together with urbanization, also means changes for China's transportation patterns, notably commuting. For Beijing, "as the city continues to expand and increasingly fewer people report to a local work unit, more and more city residents live and work in different parts of the city. These expanded journeys-to-work, along with the constraints by the urban form with the inherited land use and grid pattern in the city core and the lack of consideration of integrating land use and transportation systems, are causing deteriorated urban transport conditions" (Song et al, 4). China's commuting begins to resemble that of the United States, with ever-lengthening daily trips between suburb and city.

speeding elevated train
A Magnetic Levitation train in Shanghai
Still China has begun to react to the new stresses on its transportation networks. In 2006 China began to restore bicycle lanes that had been shut down to make room for cars (Li, Z). Beijing has begun a program to encourage public transport, lower fares, and begin a Bus Rapid Transit system (Li, L). And Shanghai is home to the world's first Magnetic Levitation train, capable of reaching speeds over 400 miles per hour.

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