Tag Archives: sidewalks

The Car Lottery – posted by Lauren

As city planners we mourn what has been sacrificed for the sake of the automobile. We’ve seen the car takeover unfold systematically over the last century in the USA: the streetcar lines were ripped out, the highways were expanded, and a car for every household (and then for every member of every household) became the norm. We now know the results of this takeover – an unhealthy population, placeless suburban arterials, loss of community, environmental destruction, and carnage.

Condense that century of development into the last 30 years and you have China’s car takeover. In 1990, there were only 5.5 million cars, trucks and buses on the road. By 2013 there were 240 million, almost as much as the U.S. The impact is staggering and includes the usual suspects in addition to novel new problems like the 11 day traffic jam. The average speed on Beijing’s ring roads is 9 MPH, a leisurely bicycling pace.

It is evident all over Beijing that there are too many cars, not enough space. It’s not that I’m not accustomed to megacity traffic. I lived in Tokyo for a year, but the actions of cars rarely impacted me as a pedestrian and cyclist. I was more impacted in Portland, but could generally avoid car aggressions by avoiding rush hour. But in Beijing it’s as if the sky opened up and dropped a million cars on the city all at once, so there’s just no easy way to manage them at the moment. That is essentially what happened, and there are growing pains from this abrupt transition.

I was recently afforded the opportunity to help CAUPD’s Department of International Cooperation plan a tour for a visiting delegation of German architects and planners. In a city that’s constantly turning over with new development, the director wanted to show them an old example of residential planning.

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Planners – such a good looking profession.

We took them on a tour of the Baiwanzhuang residential area, one of the first areas to be built in the newly formed People’s Republic of China in the 1950s. It housed government officials and was modeled on the Soviet superblock. The apartment buildings were arranged around a central common area where neighbors could meet and children could play. Schools, shops, and markets were all contained within the area so residents could meet their daily needs without leaving the neighborhood. It was essentially the 20-minute neighborhood, realized. Yet there’s one thing that wasn’t planned for: the future influx of cars.

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Baiwanzhuang as it was originally planned. Check out those mad Illustrator skills I’m finally finding the time to acquire.

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Nice sidewalks, let’s park on them.

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The streets are narrow and the sidewalks are wide, so where better to park your car than on the sidewalk. Almost every nook and cranny of Baiwanzhuang is occupied by a parked car. The gardening space in front of the buildings is more often being used as a carport. The common areas that remain are being used as parking lots, so oddly enough there aren’t many children playing or neighbors mingling in-between parked cars. With parked cars lining both sides of the street it is barely wide enough for a single car to pass, so we witnessed lots of stopping, reversing, honking, and speeding to get through when there was a clear shot without oncoming traffic.

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I was trying to make a contribution to Planners Pointing but I kept missing. We’d be standing on the sidewalk if we could.

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My colleague Victor, at the ripe old age of 34, fondly remembers growing up in the days of yore before the car takeover. He lived in a community quite similar to Baiwanzhuang where he played freely in the streets. The streets were dominated by people back in those days, and he is sad that is no longer the case.

Baiwanzhuang is just a microcosm of greater Beijing. There are cars parked on every sidewalk. This behavior has been pointed out by multiple cohorts of interns, because we’re from Portland, and this kind of aggression would not stand, man. But it’s perfectly acceptable behavior here and would appear to be the only option at times. These drivers are not scofflaws, they’re parking in a city that didn’t need many parking lots until quite recently.

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Nice sidewalk, let’s drive down it.

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Of course scofflaws do exist. No one yields to pedestrians in a crosswalk. The historic hutongs that remain are ideal pedestrian corridors, but it never fails that a car tries to force its way down them, even when no car signs are clearly posted. They clog the roadways, intrude on spaces they were not meant to go, and aren’t even that convenient in a city with world-class public transit.

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Nice pedestrian zone, let’s drive through it while honking THE ENTIRE WAY.

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Even still, everyone wants one, and why not? Then you could be that honking menace. Beijing began a lottery system in 2011 for new vehicle registrations in an attempt to slow the car takeover. This policy alone does nothing about the existing cars on the road, but it does curtail the breakneck speed that new ones are being added. Beijing was the first city to administer new registrations by a random lottery; Shanghai and other cities use an auction system that raises revenue, but inherently favors the wealthy. The lottery is seen as a fairer way to go about distributing a limited resource.

The lottery is held every month but chances of winning are low. My colleague Nanying has been playing for over a year, but she’s still riding the subway. Currently 1 person out of every 200 will win a registration, and the odds have been steadily dropping since 2011 as more and more people enter the pool.

Of course there are ways to game the system, but by most measures it appears to be successful. According to this study the number of new cars on Beijing’s roads has dropped dramatically, and congestion has improved significantly thanks to this measure combined with other policies. A smarter policy still is the creation of a separate lottery for electric vehicles. When the electric car lottery started last year there were not enough applicants to fill the pool, so it was suspended and everyone who wanted a registration for an electric vehicle got one. People were hesitant at first because the city lacks the charging station infrastructure, but now that it’s going in more people are willing to purchase an electric vehicle. The lottery is back on, and the odds are much, much better if you’re going to buy an electric vehicle with that new registration, so people are jumping on board. Smart move!

It’s not a sustainable solution to the car takeover – that will likely require a fleet of on-demand self-driving electric cars that don’t honk or drive on the sidewalk – but it’s certainly a good start for a city drowning in automobiles. I wish more cities would acknowledge the inevitable decline of the private car and act accordingly. Beijing is certainly not the only place where it is obvious that there are too many cars for the existing space (thinking of you, parking lot that is I-5).  Beijing is leading the charge on this one and more cities need to follow suit.

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I’ve Moved

Within the past week I have moved apartments, or I should say, I’ve moved from a hotel to an apartment. While I have only been living in my new place for a few days now, I have already noticed great differences between the two locations. The hotel was in an older part of Beijing and is surrounded by various hutongs. Because of this, size and width of the roads have been restricted by environment in which the roads were built. The apartment on the other hand, being in a newer part of Beijing, is surrounded by roads that were able to develop with little preexisting physical restrictions.  As a pedestrian, the differences are immediately noticeable.

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Divider between bike lane and traffic near my new apartment

In Beijing, many roads have space dedicated to bicycles. This is true both places I’ve lived, but instead of the typical steel fence like dividers you see around the city to separate bike lanes from vehicle traffic, the streets near my apartment have nice wide planters. This provides a much safer buffer between car traffic and bike traffic. My old neighborhood had the typical steel fences, but the restricted street width also meant no dedicated parking spaces and more narrow sidewalks. Already a tight fit, pedestrians have to maneuver around parked cars, which choose the sidewalk as a parking lot after having nowhere to go, while strolling along.  Conversely, given enough space, the roads around my apartment have dedicated parking spots along the side of the bike lanes, and even though people still park on the sidewalk, there is adequate space for pedestrian movement.

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Dedicated parking and wide bike lane. Near my new place

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Near my new apartment. Even with cars on the sidewalk there is still plenty of space for pedestrians

Along these sidewalks, there are also a few small vehicle lots, built as extensions of the sidewalk, that serve as one of the many hangouts for choreographed dancing that takes place around the city in the evenings.  Differences can also be seen in considerations given to the blind. All sidewalks I’ve encountered have perforated “lanes” on the sidewalks that can serve as guides for those who can’t see. Around my old hotel, these lanes were never straight and often in disrepair. Around my apartment, these guides are mostly straight and are rarely in need of repair or obstructed by parked cars.  Out of curiosity, while walking home one night, I actually tested out this guide system, and with closed eyes, comfortably walked for 100 yards or so before getting anxious and again opening my eyes.

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Bike lane next to my apartment. In the evening there are often people playing cards or chess on the divider between the bike lane and the traffic lane (right).

The larger buffer between moving traffic and the bike lanes, the dedicated parking, and the wider sidewalks all make walking around my new neighborhood a more enjoyable experience, as I spend less time worrying obstacles in my path and more time looking around me. This is purely a reflection of the ease at which I can move through these environments, and excludes my preferences for the types of building in each area, or any reflection on the travel time it takes to get around. The wider streets limit my accessibility to goods by increasing my travel time to get to them. While walking in my new neighborhood is perhaps safer, more beautiful, and for the most part nicer, I do miss having greater access to a wider variety of goods.

*I don’t have any pictures of the old neighborhood, but I’ll try to get some added soon so you can see the differences.

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