Tag Archives: transportation

Beijing Bicycle – posted by Lauren

There was a ton of excitement over Portland’s bike share announcement last week, so it only seems fitting to post about Beijing’s bike share system. I’m glad to hear the Portland system will finally be rolling out, and those green bikes are dead sexy. The Tilikum Crossing, bike share, legal weed, y’all are getting all the nice things now that I’m gone.

The logo for Beijing Public Bikes, featured prominently in the campaign for ‘don’t drive to work alone day’ on September 22.

The logo for Beijing Public Bikes, featured prominently in the campaign for ‘don’t drive to work alone day’ on September 22.

 

The bikes here are red, because everything is red.  

The bikes here are red, because everything is red.

I was debating whether or not to sign up for bike share here. Public transit can get you anywhere you need to go, but I miss riding a bike! The parade blue is gone, but the fall rains have started and the pollution drops after a heavy rain. This past weekend was relatively clear (from rain and smog) so I decided our Sunday outing to the old summer palace should happen by bike.

In my opinion the best feature by far is that you use your transit card to rent a bike. The municipally owned system really is an extension of the transit network.

Good on subways, buses, and public bikes! Modern living indeed.  

Good on subways, buses, and public bikes! Modern living indeed.

But before you can take a bike for a spin you have to enroll your transit card in the bike share system. This can only be done at a few locations during certain hours. They require a 400 yuan refundable deposit (about $60) and some paperwork, which is translated in English. I had my husband Eli with me who speaks Chinese so it was a seamless process. (Yes, I’m completely cheating at this whole being immersed in a foreign language thing. An intern from 2011 recounts what it will be like for the rest of you.)

After your card is activated for bike share all you have to do is swipe it at the docking station. The price is unbelievably cheap. The first hour is free, and every hour after that is 1 yuan (about 15 cents). The maximum amount you can be charged is 10 yuan (about $1.50), for the entire day!

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Ready to roll. Note the empty docking stations, this one must be popular.

Ready to roll. Note the empty docking stations, this one must be popular.

As for the bikes themselves, we ran into a few problems. The brakes didn’t really work on the two bikes we selected, but the main issue was the size. I’m 5’9 and Eli is 6’2 and even with the seats as high as they would go we just didn’t fit. Our plan to ride to the summer palace (about 7 miles away) was quickly dashed because it would not have been a comfortable ride. The average height here might be shorter than us, but we have seen plenty of tall people, so I wonder how they manage.

Its got a bell, a basket, a cable lock, and questionable brakes, only an issue if you plan on stopping.

Its got a bell, a basket, a cable lock, and questionable brakes, only an issue if you plan on stopping.

Tall man, little bike.

Tall man, little bike.

We did take a spin around the neighborhood for the requisite photo shoot. There is usually a separate lane for two-wheeled traffic and car parking on major streets, so that is definitely a win. You do have to share this space with motorbikes and utility trikes but it is much less stressful than riding next to traffic. There are also a ton of e-bikes here, used for delivery and everyday transit. Permanent or temporary separation, both are appreciated.

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As far as the biking culture in Beijing goes, this recap from 2011 is still accurate. Still no helmets, lights, or cycling clothes in sight. I was struck by the lack of bike racks. On the street where I live there are just painted boxes on the sidewalk. People either don’t lock their bike at all or just lock one of the wheels so it can’t be rolled away. Apparently this is the bike parking situation in Shenzhen as well. This obviously wouldn’t fly in Portland since you could just pick the bike up to steal it. A possible theft deterrent could be that most people here ride rusty old bikes that look like they haven’t been maintained since the 1980s. I’ve seen a couple flashy new ones, but they are few and far between.

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I’m accustomed to real bike racks but bike infrastructure that is just paint, here the parking is just paint but the infrastructure is real.

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Apparently this works?

The bike share system debuted in 2011 and now has over 40,000 bikes available at stations concentrated in the central city and a few suburban enclaves. I had trouble finding current information on ridership rates, but this article from 2013 reports that ridership was low in the first year. I see a lot of mostly empty docking stations, so perhaps ridership has gone up in the past two years.

Hopefully this system can help reclaim some of the mode share that was lost to the car takeover. It is really a story that is too sad to tell – the Kingdom of Bicycles reduced to a honking, gridlocked fiasco. Apparently these days it is all about form over function. You’ve got to love the quote from a woman who would rather be crying in a BMW than laughing on a bicycle. Well, she’s got plenty of time to cry when she’s stuck in traffic while the bicycles roll on by.

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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.

Baiwanzhuang English map

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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Urban design and development in Shenzhen

            As promised, I will dedicate this blog post to the history of Shenzhen. Shenzhen is one of the most important cities in China and also the world, due to its history of urban innovation and its economic and political significance. It is one of the newest major cities in the world, and as a result has experienced rapid population growth to reach its current “mega city” status. I will examine some of the policies and strategies for growth and development in this post.

            Shenzhen’s modern history can be traced back to 1979, when China opened its doors to foreign investment and free market reforms, with Shenzhen being the first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) starting in 1980. Prior to this, Shenzhen was a small fishing village – granted, a small fishing village of about 300,000 people, but still much smaller than its current size. One of the most fascinating differences about Shenzhen compared to any modern American city (or really, just about anywhere) is that the city planner’s primary function was viewed as simply providing the physical infrastructure necessary for the city so that it could attract international private investment (Zacharias and Tang 2010). Investment was then almost guaranteed to follow on its own accord, given the great new appeal to foreign investors with the SEZ. What a simple job (sort of).

            This is very different from American cities which are normally cash-strapped and struggling to make infrastructure investments in the first place. Furthermore, just because these improvements are made does not guarantee that private investment will follow. For example, a light-rail extension in the United States will hopefully attract commercial and residential development near stations, however, it is not guaranteed to attract large companies or even enough increased tax revenue to offset the cost of the infrastructure. Since so much of the cost for transportation projects is dependent on funding from the federal government’s scarce resources, the competition to land grants for such projects is very steep and as a result many worthwhile projects do not materialize.

            In addition to the financing of physical infrastructure projects, the geography of Shenzhen has played an interesting role in its development, since it is located in a very long and narrow East-West area between Hong Kong on the south and neighboring mountains to the north. In order to fit a population of over 10 million people in such an area makes it difficult to have a “core-periphery” model of urban development that is historically how Chinese cities were designed. This was discarded in favor of a “clustered linear planning principle,” which concentrated development in a number of nodes along a main corridor (Zacharias and Tang 2010). The following quote from a New York Times architectural article, can be applied quite nicely to Shenzhen, although it is referring in this case to Beijing.

“Because of this density, cities like Beijing have few of the features we associate with a traditional metropolis. They do not radiate from a historic center as Paris and New York do. Instead, their vast size means that they function primarily as a series of decentralized neighborhoods, something closer in spirit to Los Angeles. The breathtaking speed of their construction means that they usually lack the layers — the mix of architectural styles and intricately related social strata — that give a city its complexity and from which architects have typically drawn inspiration” (Ouroussoff 2008).

            In other words, in addition to the geographical constraints encouraging such a model of growth, the characteristics of Shenzhen as a very new city with less of an established city center makes this “clustered linear” model arguably more appropriate.

            Overall, Shenzhen and China more generally provide interesting perspectives on urban planning and governance. On the one hand, it is inspiring that such rapid and large-scale change is possible in a world where we increasingly are faced with very difficult environmental, economic and social problems that must be addressed in an expedient way. On the other hand, the speed at which change occurs often results in projects that could have used more foresight and planning to be the most effective. That however, is the topic for another blog post.

 

References

1. John Zacharias and Yuanzhou Tang, “Restructuring and repositioning Shenzhen, China’s new mega city,” Progress in Planning, Volume 73, issue 4 (2010): 209-249.

2. Nicolai Ouroussoff, “The new, new city,” The New York Times, June 8, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/08/magazine/08shenzhen-t.html?pagewanted=4&_r=0&ref=magazine.

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