Friday, May 8, 2009

Planning for Smart Growth

CGS is returning from a long absence, much of which was spent researching developments in the United Arab Emirates, which due to its oil reserves and carbon-intensive model of development is of great importance to the global environment. The thing that most blew CGS away, however, is Abu Dhabi's Sufrace Transport Masterplan. The plan envisions moving up to 50,000 people every two minutes, using a visionary combination of heavy and light rail, bus, traffic demand management, and transit-oriented development. The scale of the plan is astounding, not least because it entails creating one of the world's most extensive transport networks essentially from scratch by 2030.

China would do well to study it. The country may not have the Emirate's per-capita wealth (this courtesy of the country's oil reserves), but China does face a similar trend of urban population growth. Sustainable transport strategies, along with smart urban planning, will be crucial to easing (and greening) China's rapid transition to becoming an urban nation.

A recent article by Energy Foundation analyst Felix Creutzig in China Dialogue provides some indication of the imperative for smart growth. According to his analysis, the cost of congestion in the capital (Beijing has some 3.6 million cars) and air polluion amont to 7.5% of Beijing's GDP, excluding the high cost of vehicle emission contributions to climate change.

Creutzig offers a number of recommendations, including the building of satellite towns with transit-oriented development and the implementation of congestion pricing. Indeed, Beijing already has a few good examples of smart planning: the Xizhimen transport hub, for example, pretty successfully integrates long-distance rail, urban rail, and bus links with a large commercial complex and nearby residential areas.

Smart growth will not, of course, solve China's (or the world's) climate problems, but it makes sense for many other reasons, not the least of which is economic, as Creutzig shows. Moreover, smart growth maximizes co-benefits from reducing air pollution and congestion.

The principal impediment to promoting smart growth in China is the chaotic nature of local government. Beijing is in a better position than most, since it is a "municipality" that integrates local and provincial government. But for smart growth to take hold, the creation of multi-jurisditcional, regional planning organizations could be a big help.


  1. Notwithstanding the benefits of cheap transportation, lessening carbon emissions, and avoiding congestion, the issue of car ownership in China is rapidly becoming--as it is in the USA--a matter of pride, progress, and prestige. While car manufacturers continue to effectively sell us on the virtual need to own a car, transportation systems, will not achieve their respect production possibility frontier. And, Swine Flu is reason (excuse) enough for commuters to drive counterintuitive vehicles.

  2. Fair point. It's clear that owning a car is a crucial part of the middle class lifestyle many urban Chinese aspire to. But I still think the best way to blunt this desire is to build cities in ways which make walking, cycling, or taking public transport enjoyable, and it certainly should be less of a hassle than driving.