Tag Archives: Public Transit

Shenzhen’s Street Life

By Eric Rutledge

Walk up to street level from the underground metro and Shenzhen’s active, seemingly chaotic street life will smack you in the face. Densely packed retail stores, restaurants, and produce shops sit below layers of bright signs in Chinese characters. Pedestrians, bikes, and scooters flow between the street and sidewalk, with little regard for signals, rules, or anyone in their way. Cars (mostly) stay to the street, but with little regard for anything but traffic lights. Horns are used more frequently than brakes, and yielding to anyone seems to mean you will lose years off your life that you can never get back.

This is Shenzhen’s Futian District, formerly an agricultural village, then the heart of the city’s 1980s manufacturing era that gave way to today’s modern business district. As Lauren mentioned below, public space is unsurprisingly a common topic on the Transplanet blog. But how can it not be? For any American planner fortunate enough to experience the invigorating streets of a 21st century Chinese city, one must blog about it.

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A crowded Futian District retail street with high end stores. Metro entrance can be seen in the center of photo. Versace advertisement, upper right corner of photo.

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Pedestrians, bikes, scooters, and cars tangled at an intersection

The idea of leaving my hotel or office and taking to the Futian streets is met with excitement and resistance. I can’t wait to be immersed in the sounds, smells, and sight of a bustling city, where poor rural migrants and ultra-wealthy urban elites push forward with their daily lives. On the other hand, the calm, air conditioned office offers a peaceful place where I can learn the history of the city below me and try to make sense of the chaos I can hear from the third story window.

In the end I’m happy to have both, but my office is not what makes this district special. The same place that American Vision Zero advocates would consider hell on earth is actually heaven on earth for American advocates of the complete neighborhood movement. For my non-planner friends, Vision Zero is the goal of achieving zero traffic fatalities via safe streets and responsible driving, and a complete neighborhood is one where home, work, school, parks, and groceries are within walking or biking distance. So while the street is a frenzy of cars, scooters, and busses and the sidewalk is a frenzy of pedestrians and bicyclists, usually whatever you left the house to get is just around the corner. It’s the latter that American city planners can strive to achieve more of, but what are the conditions in Shenzhen that make the hyper-active streets not only feasible, by necessary?

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Two men leaving a street-level market at the base of a residential building

First, Shenzhen is dense. The urban area features 14,000 people per square mile and the total population is approaching 20 million. Over 1,000 skyscrapers dot the skyline and omni-present cranes are raising even more. Shenzhen’s Futian District is no exception to the density rule and it’s rare to see a building under four stories tall. While some American cities are denser (San Francisco ~17,000 people/sq. mile and New York City ~27,000 people/sq. mile), it’s the sheer number of people in Shenzhen and how they move across the city that make it feel different. The city continues to add sparkling new underground metro lines that connect the city and leave American transportation planners wondering “How can we do that?”. Literally millions of pedestrians pop out of the underground metro system every day and are immediately a potential customer for the street level shops, restaurants, and news stands. If a Shenzhener needs something on their way home from work, they can simply grab it on the way to their apartment. In this regard, densely packed ground floor retail is not a convenience, but a necessity.

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Futian District, from the top of the Difu Hotel where UPDIS interns are staying

Second, smaller living spaces and less cars means more frequent shopping trips for less items. The Futian streets are full of shoppers carrying items at their sides, in rolling carts, or on the back of their bike. The all-American Costco just isn’t a thing here, and while those fortunate enough to have cars certainly use them, parking for any use is limited throughout the city.

Finally, China’s new urban population has spurred serious demand for material goods. In just 35 years, Shenzhen’s lush agricultural land has been replaced by a modern city, full of urban residents that once lived off the land. Consumerism is alive and well here, and much of the shopping takes place on the street. Although high end stores are only located in air conditioned super malls, Futian’s ground level storefronts sell everyday food, clothes, phones, and household supplies. Everywhere you look, it seems, Shenzheners are taking to the street to spend their newly acquired wealth.

  • Eric R
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Ground floor retail with residential above, wide sidewalks separated by a planter

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Active streets near Futian’s large indoor electronics market

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Transporting goods via cart and a Coca-Cola to cool off

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Shoe store on the left, fruit stand on the right

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Futian’s massive indoor electronics market, where buyers come from around the world to purchase an endless variety of electronic goods

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Busy pedestrian street, although cars and large trucks are not banned

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Going for a ride

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Street barber

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Outdoor market tucked away in a neighborhood courtyard

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Disorder on the streets

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Cars whizzing by a man crossing the street with a cart full of boxes

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Incredibly instructive signage

China never fails to disappoint when it comes to instructive [and entertaining] signage. Here are a couple of my favorite instructional signs.

Shenzhen recreation area

Shenzhen recreation area

“A small step close toward urinal, a big step toward civilization!”

Until I saw this sign (a male companion brought it to my attention- I did not discover it by being in the urinals myself), I would not have equated urinal usage with civilization. That being said, I totally get it. Hardly a day goes by without observing a child’s bare bum, often relieving itself in the public right-of-way. If you’ve been to China, you are likely familiar with crotchless pants that young children adorn. Also likely, you’ve observed some questionable parental judgment when it comes to excretion. While I understand many of the benefits of not diapering a small child, there’s a critical age at which public excretion just seems like a slap in the face (let’s hope not literally). And of course, not just children are to blame for human waste in the right-of-way. So yes, perhaps, a small step close toward urinal is a big step toward civilization.

Shenzhen recreation area

Shenzhen recreation area

“The slight effort to do environmental protection gives our children a beautiful earth”

Beautifully put. It may take a bit more than a “slight effort”, but stewardship, personal responsibility and trans-generational thinking are always good lessons.

All your emergency provisions in one park

This way to all of your various emergency service needs. And, just in case, please feel free to vend an emergency life jacket should the man-made pond reach one thousand year floodplain levels.

Shenzhen's Lichee Park

Shenzhen’s Lichee Park

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Guangzhou MTR

Safe escalator use

I’ve always been a cautious escalator user, but I was not fully aware of the dangers and responsibilities of escalator use. Thanks to this example of incredibly instructive signage, I now am. The messages conveyed here may be too numerous by our signage standards, but, hey, this is China (“TIC”).  

Wayfinding on Hong Kong MTR

Some more incredibly instructive MTR signage (although, quite a bit more useful)…

Hong Kong MTR

Hong Kong MTR

Shenzhen performing arts center

Shenzhen performing arts center

“Dry your hands, keep away drops” Yes, while drying your hands certainly will keep away drops, I can’t help but to wonder if this is the most important message to disseminate at the sink basin. Yes, I have an agenda. So far in mainland China, I have yet to see a sign about the importance of washing hands with soap- or the oh-so-familiar signs about washing before returning to work. I’ve been conducting my own study of sorts. At my office, males and females share the sinks in an area outside of the squat toilets. Covertly, I watch the handwashing behaviors of my fellow office workers. Over the past four weeks, on only two occasions have I seen anyone use soap, despite the fact that it is conveniently placed beside each basin. I try to withhold my public health reflex of repulsion. Back to the sign at hand (pun not intended): while entertaining, for me, this sign states the obvious, but misses the point.

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