How Participatory Data Collection is Shaping China’s Mobility & Climate Policy
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In early July, Meeting of the Minds Consultant and Writer Kate O’Brien connected by phone with Xumei Chen, Director of the Policy and Standard Division at China Urban Sustainable Transport Research Center(CUSTReC), a Volvo Research and Educational Foundation(VREF) Global Future Urban Transport Center of Excellence and a think tank within the Chinese Ministry of Transport, to learn about her research and policy work focused on public transport systems in her rapidly urbanizing country.
During their conversation, Kate noted elements of participatory research methodology in Chen’s quantitative research which, according to qualitative researchers Bergold and Thomas is “geared towards planning and conducting the research process with those people whose life-world and meaningful actions are under study.” As participatory research and data collection has strong potential for building will toward a particular goal or objective among participants, this methodology can be an important vehicle for pushing China’s transition to a more climate-friendly transport system.
Tell me a bit about your research and work on the transport challenges that China and its cities face. Why is this work important?
I’m a researcher focused on urban mobility across China. As you know, here in China we are experiencing very rapid urbanization. By the end of 2017, 58% of Chinese people were living in either well-established or emerging cities. There is no established public transit system for people in these places, and at the same time, there is rapid growth in ownership and use of private cars, causing significant roadway congestion and compromised air quality. These are large, interconnected, systemic challenges we’re wrestling with. How can the Chinese government promote development and widespread use of transit systems, especially in emerging cities, while decreasing energy consumption, combatting congestion, and mitigating air quality issues? In my work, we tackle this question by focusing on three key areas:
- Establishing national transport criteria. Comprised of 30 indicators, these criteria offer city governments guidance to take action locally on encouraging transport planning and policymaking with an eye toward bus, urban rail, and green travel (walking, bicycling).
- Developing a national database for public transport. Before 2012, there was no clearinghouse of data about transport use and operational trends at the local, provincial, or national government levels, which made it nearly impossible to discern trends or develop policy.
- Working with cities to research and document the cost fare subsidy systems. Policymakers need detailed information about what’s required for bus transport enterprises to deliver quality service, which helps them determine the need for and amount of subsidy and incentives.
Let’s talk first about establishing national transport criteria. What went into that work?
So, I work for a think tank under the Chinese Ministry of Transport, and our goal is to develop policies that can be promoted both at the national and local levels. Our policy work touches planning, public transit, and travel demand management. Essentially, we wish to guide people to use cars more rationally, and we do that by studying and understanding the kinds of system-wide trends and improvements that will incentivize wider operation and use of public transport. In the Transit Metropolitan Project, we led a pilot project with 87 cities—that’s most of our capital cities and many smaller ones—where we developed measurements and incentives that would help them encourage people to choose bus, urban rail, and green travel (biking, walking) instead of cars. Different cities are developing different action plans depending on the characteristics and context of their respective communities, but it was an initial run at offering guidance to cities that helps them take tangible transport and climate action at the local level. Engaging 87 cities means we have the potential to create impact at scale with this project.
So how does development of a national database fit into that work? Who participates in populating that national database?
Earlier I mentioned that before 2012, there was no clearinghouse of data about transport use or operational trends at the local, provincial, or national government levels. That lack of data meant it was nearly impossible for policymakers to know, for example, how many busses were in operation nationally, what resources it took to operate them, or how efficient they were (or not). It was difficult for cities to effectively assess the true cost of diesel bus operation, which meant they had a hard time figuring out if and how much to continue subsidizing those operations, or what kinds of incentives would be effective in pushing change—either in helping bus operators migrate their diesel-based operations to electric, or helping people choose green travel (walking, biking, or shared mobility) instead of driving their car. The database has been quite a collaborative effort, sponsored and supported by the World Bank, VREF, and a number of consultants from the international community, and fed information from people all over China—at provincial, city, and bus operator levels. This work—the contribution of data to advance the greater good and to inform their own and each other’s decision-making—has been critical for cities and provinces to advance their progress toward those criteria I mentioned previously.
You mentioned the third focus area of yours—working with cities on understanding the real cost of operating busses, and assessing appropriate subsidies and incentives that move the needle on creating a well-designed, well-used transport system. Help me understand the details embedded in this part of your research.
Sure. In China, bus fares are incredibly low, so bus operators are consistently operating at a loss; as a result, they are not compelled to improve service quality. They require subsidies to continue operations; however, governments have been reluctant to offer subsidies because they had a hard time knowing the real costs without good data. This has been a particularly acute problem with our national push to get cities to migrate from investment and use of diesel busses to e-busses (electric busses). Diesel has long been used to power busses here, and operators know the rhythms and rhymes of those operations. E-bus technology requires different operations, different training, and different protocols. For example, operators need to learn and develop practices to anticipate re-charging every 120,000 kilometers per day, compared to the 200,000 kilometer run diesels can make. With China’s critical air pollution issues, the Ministry recognizes the need to push for a cleaner transport system, and communications, training, and education about the value of these changes would go a long way to building the political and public will to change. There are localized challenges for operators associated with the top-down national e-bus movement, too. For example, costs of running e-busses are higher for operators, and as yet, governments have been reluctant to issue subsidies. As operations data comes in through the database, and our research team begins to analyze that data, we’ll be able to help the Ministry assess what subsidies and incentives will be beneficial for operators, users, and for advancing and evolving the transport system as a whole.
As it is, there are already operators who want to migrate their operations from diesel to e-bus. But the operators need guidance. There’s a ton of variation in the relative efficiency, safety, cost, and emissions reduction potential of each model. There’s not a ton of published data or analysis yet about e-bus performance, so our team is beginning to evaluate the performance of e-busses (by 2017 40% of bus operations in China were run using e-busses, that’s 250K e-busses on the road now) now that we’re starting to get a good amount of data to analyze. We do know that e-bus performance varies by a lot of factors, so there’s much to study.
So, having everyone contribute data to the national database is critical, right? How does the Ministry communicate with people at various government levels, and especially the operators, about the need for data? What compels these people to participate?
That’s a good question. There’s promise of the national government offering incentives for investing in e-busses, but an operator cannot get an incentive or subsidy unless they’re registered on the national database platform. So yes, there’s good financial incentive for operators to contribute their performance data.
Can you tell me—what’s the messaging about the importance of your research to the wider movement to invest in a national transport system? Why now? And where it will take the country?
This is an excellent time for China and its cities to develop and invest in a public transport system. Right now, cars are very affordable in China, but our resources are limited: people are struggling—they wish to own their own car and get themselves to work or wherever they need to go, but there’s a lot of congestion, and no one can go as fast as they need or want to. With the rate at which cars are coming onto the road, China’s roadways will be over maximum carrying capacity within five years. Right now is our window; this is our best shot at making a systems-level impact on transport and climate, by investing in e-busses system-wide. Our largest cities have great efficiencies built into them, simply because they are so densely populated that cars are already at a disadvantage on established roadways. These are the places to learn from, because for much of China, rapidly emerging cities are the places where we can get it right. There are millions of people moving to growing cities, and these places can create their own path forward into the future by learning from the mistakes our larger and more established cities like Beijing and Shanghai have already made. Emerging cities across China are where we can make perhaps our greatest, large-scale impact.
You make an excellent point about emerging cities learning the cautionary transport tales of older, more established cities. Tell me about how cities in China are learning from each other, and from other cities around the world?
There are a few ways cities are learning from each other. First, the Ministry of Transport hosts an annual meeting for the 87 Transit Metropolis Project pilot cities I mentioned earlier. Each year, we invite a handful of those cities to come to the annual meeting to share their actions and their lessons learned, both positive and negative. At last year’s meeting, we organized visits to 15 cities for delegations of provincial and municipal representatives, as well as passenger delegates. We arranged face-to-face interviews among them so they can discuss issues and compare notes. Second, we received support for learning amongst cities from several international organizations, including the World Bank , the World Resource Institute, Energy Foundation, and VREF. These kinds of institutions provide great platforms for informational exchange, and they disseminate findings across China and with the rest of the world. Finally, we present our work at several international workshops—like last month’s ITDP MOBILIZE conference in Dar es Salaam—at which such stakeholders as government representatives, NGOs, and researchers meet and and learn from each other.
How is the Ministry engaging the private sector in communicating about the importance of your work, and the great potential of investing in a national transport system as a whole?
Our team works with national authorities to develop policy, but early on in the process, we engage the private and nonprofit sectors in dialogue to get their suggestions on messaging. We participate and engage with networks—for example the Zero Emission Alliance, which is comprised of researchers, passengers, government representatives, and operators—to communicate with and educate people. Through webinars and newsletters, we try to convey the ways that use of various forms of mobility—whether bikes, taxis, carpooling, busses—will affect how people move throughout the system.
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