This interview series is made possible by the Volvo Research and Educational Foundations. Each month we feature a leading thinker from VREF’s Future Urban Transport program.
Meeting of the Minds talked with Xumei Chen about sustainable urban transport in China. Ms. Chen is Associate Professor and Director for Policy and Standard Division at the China Urban Sustainable Transport Research Center (CUSTReC), an international think tank on urban transport in the China Academy of Transportation Sciences of the Ministry of Transport in China. Her main research areas include low carbon transport policies, energy conservation and emission reduction, environmental and energy technologies as well as climate adaptation.
What is some of the VREF supported research you are doing?
This year is the 10th anniversary of the China Urban Sustainable Transport Research Center (CUSTReC), which is a Volvo Research and Educational Foundation (VREF) Center of Excellence. The institute’s work relates to national policies and more detailed research in a variety of urban transport sector areas. One of our first key activities was supporting the state council in developing and disseminating the first document at the national level for developing public transport. That important document covered research in the areas of institutional reform and public design of public transport, at both the national and local levels. China is governed by a top-down system so many policies are created at the national level, along with strong guidelines for cities to develop their public transport systems. Originally, the Ministry of Transport dealt only with highways, but in 2008 it was expanded to include public transportation so we supported ministerial reform in that transition.
CUSTReC also researches the financing of transportation infrastructure and operations, such as mass transit development related to bus rapid transit and urban rail transit. We also recognized the need for data to support our research so are helping the Chinese government build the first public transport database. This will help both the government and companies in managing public transport.
In 2011, we also helped the Ministry of Transport launch the Urban Transit Metropolis Demonstration Project that is focused on intelligent transportation systems (ITS), mass transit, infrastructure, and hubs that connect different transport modes. In this pilot project, 37 cities each developed their own plan for implementation with funding support from the national, regional, and local governments.
What findings have been exciting or surprising?
Before the Centre of Excellence was established, the Ministry of Transport didn’t have any support on guiding urban transportation and there were no other think tanks focused on the issues. We first had to learn from international experiences, which aren’t always applicable to China, especially due to the many differences in each of the country’s provinces. So we then had to develop new theory and methodologies to implement policies to the local level.
For instance, the city government in Beijing has a lot of money for building infrastructure, purchasing vehicles, or giving subsidies to public transport riders. The public transit system there is very well developed. By 2013, “green” travel – public transport, walking, and cycling – exceeded 65% of all travel. That’s a big share compared with international cities. However, the cities in the western part of China are much poorer so cannot make as many investments or subsidies. Public transit there isn’t convenient so rich people buy private cars and poor people end up having to walk very far to get where they need to go. So we hope to outline policies to help those poor cities develop infrastructure and multi-level financing for public transport system investments.
What is the connection between sustainable transit, sustainable cities, and climate adaptation?
Climate change adaptation is a new area in China. The country is experiencing rapid urbanization and many new cities are being constructed. Infrastructure is difficult to adapt so we focus on building more climate resilient infrastructure right at the beginning. More plans and technical standards need to be put in place during construction, especially in coastal areas, to prepare for alternative modes of travel to move people quickly during floods, hurricanes, or other climate related events. We particularly need to pay more attention to the needs of poor people who don’t have their own cars to travel during these kinds of events. We have joined new research on climate adaptation organized by the International Transport Forum and will have some findings available soon.
What policies can help achieve low carbon urban transportation?
We develop policies for cities to create people-oriented infrastructure, instead of the current car-oriented infrastructure. Overall, this means improving convenience for people, not cars. In China, the private car is a symbol of wealth and everyone is trying to get their own. However, many educated people, especially from international countries, know that using public transport is better, socially and environmentally. So a good metro system like the one in Paris would be used by wealthier people, which would then decrease car usage. At the national level, there are also subsidies for poor people to take public transport.
We have created some planning and construction standards to improve transport. For instance, by placing the exit of a metro station so that it reaches shopping malls, bike stations, and other conveniences. This also supports intermodal integration, which means that people can easily transfer from one mode of travel to another.
In one of our previous blog posts, we heard from Juan Carlos Muñoz about some key aspects of bus rapid transit (BRT) systems. Are there challenges or opportunities unique to China in planning and implementing BRTs?
BRTs are a big opportunity because of China’s fast urbanization. Over half of all people now live in cities, which has created a lot more demand for vehicles. So there is a need to build more mass transit infrastructure like bus rapid transit (BRT) and urban rail transit, including metros and trams. However, the cost of a BRT system is about a third of that for a metro system and sometimes there isn’t the passenger volume to justify a metro system. BRTs also don’t need approval at the national level like metros do.
There are several generations of bus rapid transit systems in China. The first-generation is the systems where buses go slow – less than 15kmh – and share lanes with other vehicles; the stations aren’t very good and may have ticket sales placed outside the station. Most Chinese cities implement second-generation BRT systems, which have improved stations with clean platforms and ticket sales within an extension area. However, the BRT lanes are still shared so speeds remain low. There are also safety concerns when passengers change between regular and BRT buses. The third-generation BRT systems have dedicated lanes, connections with other buses, and good intermodal integration overall.
The city of Guangzhou is an example of a third-generation BRT system and it holds the world record for the highest capacity of bus passengers. It is also the first BRT system in China to include bike parking, bike sharing, extension bridges to connect adjacent buildings, and multiple companies involved in its operation. The Guangzhou BRT has excellent connections with metros and has been designed to be very people-oriented overall.
There is a political challenge to BRTs though. City mayors often prefer something new and innovative, like a metro system, instead of BRTs which are similar to regular buses. This is especially true in wealthier eastern Chinese cities that don’t care as much about cost. So we are trying to do a project to develop the next generation series of BRT – for both China and the rest of the world – with innovations on vehicles, platforms, or roads.
Where are the biggest needs or opportunities for change or innovation?
We need to encourage innovation in all areas. That includes technological innovation, such as clean energy vehicles (like fuel cell electric buses), climate ready transport infrastructure, and even autonomous vehicles. These innovations will greatly affect the operation, management, and passenger behavior of urban transport. There is also now more use of mobile apps for people to be able to call a taxi or check transport schedules on their phones from home. There are car sharing and commercial bus apps as well. In fact, Uber has a hard time in China because there is already a similar company there.
As an urban transportation researcher, some of the biggest challenges are operations, how to have more clean energy vehicles, and how to take advantages of big data to help policy makers build a more reliable urban travel environment. These are big challenges, but also big opportunities.