By Anne Meredith
NANJING — It is hard to argue with the benefits of public transportation: it cuts down on car use, which cuts down on smog, which is good for the environment and good for people’s health. This is true, however, only if people can be convinced to use public transportation, and only in places where the population is relatively dense. While I was growing up in Baltimore City, I took the bus downtown every day.
The buses were old, and came infrequently. If you missed the first one, you often had to wait for over an hour for the next one. The general attitude in the city seemed to be that taking the bus was only for minorities and the poor. Everyone else drove. I dislike driving, and persevered in taking the bus for as long as I could, but I often found myself having to drive to the many places which were simply inaccessible by public transportation.
It seems like the solution to the problem would be investing more in public transit, but in Baltimore’s case this doesn’t seem like it would do much good, as the city center, like that of many American cities, is empty at the core, filled with row after row of vacant houses. There are simply not enough people traveling back and forth to make further investment worthwhile.
Most American cities are built on a model that assumes that everyone drives a car, and people in many places live in the suburbs and commute long distances each day. Unless the United States wants to undertake a massive restructuring of its society such that people leave the suburbs and begin to live densely together in the cities as they once did, it is doubtful that investing in public transportation alone this late in the game could change much. China, however, is still in the process of rapid urbanization. The fact that its cities are being designed from the ground up offers an amazing opportunity to design them in a way that encourages public transportation use.
China has indeed been investing heavily in public transportation. Its bullet trains are sleek, fast and on time, and its buses and metros come every five minutes. Unfortunately, however, even in the face of China’s massive investment in public transportation, the number of people buying cars has continued to surge, and China has already surpassed the United States as the world’s largest car market. Car ownership has become a status symbol, as well as a prerequisite for marriage, at least for males. In cities like Beijing, people are already moving to the suburbs in increasing numbers. If such trends continue, China may end up with American-style suburban sprawl, and American-style driving habits.
Thanks to China’s huge population, even if only a fraction of Chinese cities are built in sprawling American style, smog would increase significantly as a result, as it already has in many places, thanks in large part to the surge in car use. Hence, while the Chinese government is right to pour so much money into improving public transportation, simply providing alternative forms of transportation will not be enough.
At the same time, it should do more to discourage the growth of suburbs, and to discourage people from purchasing and driving cars. China has the opportunity to learn from other countries’ past mistakes and develop in a way that avoids sprawl and encourages the growth of densely populated urban areas where cars are unnecessary. Its investments in public transport are a step in the right direction, and should be commended.