Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Observations on Chinese cities

OK, so for the last two weeks, I've been traveling around China, just for fun. As far as urbanism go, China is one of the biggest stories around. Like in every other country that developed economically, China is living through extremely rapid urbanization of its population. Also, unlike most other developing countries, the Chinese government is strong, stable and willing to take the lead in investing tons of money into public infrastructure.

30 years ago, Shanghai had no subway, today its 588 km of tracks make it the most extensive metro system in the world and one of the most used, with 3 billion passengers per year
So let's talk about about Chinese urbanism, shall we? Again, I'm no expert, this is my own personal experience and my conclusions from what I have noticed. I make no claim of omniscience or infallibility.

The Chinese street

Streets in China are a mixed bag. Some of them seemed to be extremely well-designed, with narrow store fronts all along it, relatively wide sidewalks with good design (including tactile guidelines for the blind) and plenty of trees.

A common Chinese street: tons of streets, nice sidewalk with guidelines for the blind and tons of tiny shops lining it
Many Chinese cities also often separate wide streets with grassy medians on both sides, leaving travel lanes in the center of the street and either bike/scooter lanes on the side, parking lanes and/or bus lanes.
This street leaves 4 travel lanes for cars in the center, with bike/scooter lanes and parking lanes on the side, separated from travel lanes by medians covered with bushes and trees
One thing I can say for sure is that the Chinese don't give a damn about "fixed object clearance", they are keen to put trees bordering travel lanes or other fixed obstacles. Kudos to them for it.

However, there's a problem, a very big problem. Chinese drivers, whether of cars, buses or scooters, are terrible at actually following the rules of the road. Drivers next to never give right of way to pedestrians or scooters. Instead, they slow down and honk to force them to let them pass. After a few days, I had started to be used to it, I was tolerating the incessant honking of Chinese streets by thinking back on the idiom "chien qui aboie ne mord pas", "barking dogs never bite".... maybe "honking driver never hit", it's the ones who don't honk who are the most dangerous.

Chinese drivers also have no qualm about using the sidewalk for parking when convenient. This reminds me of my articles about how tolerating street parking can cripple emerging parking markets by providing a free publicly-provided alternative.

A wide sidewalk being used as supplementary parking despite parking being allowed on the street

This bozo parked his car right on the guidelines for the blind

Other example of formal parking on the sidewalk, taking almost all of it
In areas under construction, sometimes streets were an utter disaster, with pedestrians walking along what were essentially highways, with no sidewalk to speak of. I also saw people walking in an highway interchange while I was in a bus, the planners in the area having made the mistake of providing infrastructure requiring cars to be properly used, in a country where most people still cannot afford cars.

People walking on the shoulder of an extremely wide urban road, almost highway-like
The Chinese who spoke English I talked to who were aware of Japanese streets and their highly respectful drivers were largely envious of Japan in that regard. A sentiment I feel is pretty widely shared, however, in a context of tolerated aggressive driving, even people who are tempted to follow the law are forced to become aggressive drivers too. Overall, what China indicates to me is that you can have the best infrastructure possible, but you still need to make sure people follow the rules. And if you tolerate deviant behavior too much, then at some point, you force even people who want to be law-abiding to adopt deviant behavior not to be shoved out of traffic by other drivers.

"I haven't ridden a bike in ten years!" - testimony from a Chinese

As a side effect of this free-for-all, bikes are being shoved out of public streets, often despite the presence of bike lanes, which are taken over by scooters and e-bikes that can more easily keep up with cars. Most people have been scared into abandoning even the mere idea of biking, despite biking being extremely appropriate for the dense Chinese cities and their megablocs.

The Chinese street grid, or the megabloc

There is a clear pattern I found in recent developments in China, which I call the commie megabloc. Essentially, in a way reminiscent of Soviet urbanism, developments in China, rather than having a dense network of streets like Japan or Korea, have enormous blocs that are often half a kilometer in width and length, with streets only on the periphery.

Example of megabloc, a very big residential bloc-sized development is bordered by straight streets
However, this form of development is actually even worse than the Soviet-style one for a simple reason: the traditional Chinese approach of surrounding one's residence by walls.

"Why wouldn't you want a wall there? It's your property!" -response from a Chinese when I said that houses in North America have unwalled front yards open to the street

This can be seen in traditional Chinese hutongs (or alleys) and the Siheyuan courtyard house that made up much of the urban residential housing stock in Imperial China.

A Chinese hutong in Beijing, doors in the walls often open on small courtyards, with houses built inside walls located at the property line
This tradition has actually been ported over to multifamily developments, but instead of each household having its own walled off property, the apartment bloc, or even the apartment cluster, is surrounded by a wall with only one access path, often one with a barrier and a security guard.

A high metal fence surrounds this cluster of residential high-rises, cutting off pedestrian traffic between it and the street

Here, they use an unbroken wall of 3-story buildings at the edge of the cluster to wall it off from the street
In this case, they have a wall of narrow store-fronts all around the apartment cluster

An older neighborhood with residential walls around mid-rise residential blocs
This isn't a military base, it's just a regular entry point into an apartment cluster in one of China' megablocs
The effect of this obsession with walling off residential areas is that it severely cuts down on side streets that can serve as alternative straighter paths for pedestrians and cyclists rather than going on the main through streets that surround the megablocs. This imposes detours on residents who must first get to the one point that allows entry and exit of their community before going where they want to go. That's not how the Soviets did it, nor how the Swedes do it (for they also have things inspired by that design, I talked about it here).

In effect, a lot of Chinese developments are basically like gated communities. It's just that instead of being isolated geographically, they are built deep inside urban areas. This mode of development has some advantages and some disadvantages.


  • It avoids having traffic running through residential areas, as they have no through street within them, which makes areas safer and quieter (considering the constant melody of cars honking in China, that is not to be neglected).
  • It channels stores and offices onto the periphery road, all these roads forming a regular grid that are highly conducive to surface transit. Indeed, buses have no alternative but to simply travel on these roads in straight lines, without detours, which also makes it easy for people to navigate the bus system: just go to the major road and take buses in the direction you want to go to.
  • It limits the number of intersections pedestrians walking along the major roads will face, since there tends to be only one of them every 300 to 500 meters.

  • It creates a street grid with a very low number of through streets, which results in a dilemma where you can either have small streets that face near constant congestion (terrible for buses too) or very wide streets that act as barriers to non-motorized travel.
  • Without footpaths and bikepaths through the megablocs, this can also impose detours for short-distance trips, which makes ownership of cars and scooters much more attractive.
  • Though the low number of streets makes for better transit lines that are easier to understand, they also can create bus bunching and congestion because bus lines have relatively low capacities. In China, most buses tend to be midibuses, which are shorter and narrower than the usual North American bus, and I never saw any articulated bus (though I did see and rode a double-decker, which was bouncy as all hell). So it's not unusual to have 4 or 5 buses following each other, each being of a different overlapping line.
4 buses bunched up together
In recent years, the Chinese government has started pressuring developers to build more streets in their megablocs, but will it change this pattern?

One effect of this way of building cities is that I had the opposite problem while reading maps than I had in Japan. In Japan, while reading maps, I would continually be confused by the dense grid of small residential streets into overestimating distances. In China, it was the opposite, I kept underestimating distances due to the lack of streets.

The economics of transport

The first thing I can say about public transport is that it is exceptionally cheap. The typical bus has a fare between 1,0 and 2,0 yuans, which is about 20-40 Canadian cents. Taxis are much more affordable too, with the fare per distance being of about 2,3 to 2,5 RMB per km from what I've seen, or about 50 Canadian cents per km (which comes out to about 0,60 USD per mile) with a minimum fare of 10-15 RMB. So yes, taxis are affordable for foreign tourists, but public transit is much, much cheaper than them. Metros have distance-based fares, but rarely go above 5 RMB (1 CAD).

However, what hurts trains and metros is that following a mass suicide knife attack on a train station by Uyghurs (three guesses as to their religion, the first two don't count), China has installed X-ray baggage scanners in EVERY train and metro station. Train stations even have guards with assault rifles at the doors, just in case. Unlike the Japanese, they do not allow train passengers to access train boarding platforms, people have to wait in an overpopulated and way too hot waiting room and line up 30-45 minutes before the train leaves, to allow staff to control tickets. This is like what VIA Rail does in Canada and is a disaster in terms of customer experience, taking the airplane experience, and making it worse.

China also has tolls on its highways, but since I never drove (you couldn't pay me to drive there!) I cannot say how high the tolls are. These tolls may help limit car travel in the long run, but there doesn't seem to be all that many of them.

Then, there is the issue of parking. Talking with my guide, it appears that underground parking spaces in China are about as expensive as over here, and the government has started to mandate minimum parking rules for new developments. However, the continued tolerance of sidewalk parking remains a thorn in the growth of a healthy parking market that forces drivers to pay the full cost of their parking. Parking costs are a great incentive for urban residents to avoid using their cars for short trips, cutting down significantly on local traffic. As long as people can avoid paying for parking by parking haphazardly on sidewalks, it will likely remain a difficult situation for all involved, even drivers as they are likely to have less parking options than they would if they were paying for their parking and thus attracting developers to build more parking.

What is interesting is the lack of commercial parking. Commercial areas rarely have more parking than street parking, though I'm sure big malls have underground parking or the like. This is radically different from North America, where the high parking requirements for commercial developments is the main reason why towns and suburbs remain largely unwalkable, since commercial density is more important to walkability than residential density.

Overall, my impressions

China has great density, and there is a lot of green spaces and trees inside their cities. Their government invests massively to provide the public infrastructure on which their mega-cities are running. Chinese urbanism, as far as developing countries go, is decent enough, but I couldn't call it great. The use of megablocs with gated communities severely hurts non-motorized transport, and it somehow echoes some suburban practices in North America (dead-end residential streets, subdivision-level development of clusters of similar buildings, few through roads that are often wide with difficult intersections to cross, gated communities, etc...).

The first measure I would like to see is an opening of the megablocs to pedestrian traffic, then an enforcement of traffic rules that is severely lacking. Surface transit could be made better through use of larger vehicles and eliminating some lines to increase capacity while reducing bunching.

Despite its faults, the system works decently enough and allows Chinese cities to expand in a way that doesn't preclude non-motorized transport or public transport. It was an interesting experience, though not the greatest of my life.