Clash of Subways and Car Culture in Chinese Cities

The question is whether the burrowing machines can outrace China’s growing love affair with the automobile.

At least 15 cities are building subway lines and a dozen more are planning them. The pace of construction will only accelerate now that Beijing is pushing local and provincial governments to step up their infrastructure spending to offset lost revenue from slumping exports.

"Nobody is building like they are," said Shomik Mehndiratta, a World Bank specialist in urban transport. "The center of construction is really China."

Full Story: Clash of Subways and Car Culture in Chinese Cities



Saving the World

There is a basic tension between building subways and building suburbs. If Chinese want to suburbanize on the scale of American cities, these subways will fall into disuse.

The per capita vehicle ownership rate is still low in China, but its steady rise bodes ill for future subway construction and use.

I'd say the question is, how do you convince the ever larger share of relatively well-off Chinese to embrace urban living?

Building at very high densities has huge benefits for the environment, and gives people unparalleled walkability, but it has its challenges as well (e.g. noise). As the clock ticks on climate change, the urgency of building density THAT APPEALS TO PEOPLES' VALUES is more urgent than ever across the globe.

Happy Medium

For some reason, the future of development in China is almost always looked at as a choice between either super-high density high-rise cities, or low-density car-oriented American-style single-family suburbs. Yes, if China build tonnes of subway lines along with low-density suburbs, they will fall into disuse. But why would they ever do that? Moreover, why do we frame the debate in such a way?

Subways can serve medium-high density neighbourhoods that combine a few high-rises alongside low-rise apartment, row houses, single family homes, mixed-use areas and commercial corridors. Run the subways along walkable commercial corridors (like Connecticut Avenue in Washington DC) and have the intersecting and parallel streets be a combination of housing types. You end up with a housing mix that works for everyone (including the Chinese people who want American-style single-family homes) paired with an efficient transportation system.

There's no reason to view it as tall-towers vs. large-lot suburbia (which is how we tend to see the debate). When we think in terms of all-or-nothing in either direction, we usually just get bad ideas.

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