In my last post, I talked about my own experiences with Beijing’s various means of transportation and concluded that biking could compete fairly well with buses, subway, and cars (and, factoring in the exercise benefits, it’s now my preferred means of transportation). Nevertheless, I think it’s fair to say that Beijing has some serious urban transportation problems if biking can compete with other modes of transportation in terms of convenience, at least at certain hours of the day. But I am somewhat hopeful because the city appears to be moving in the right direction. A new subway line is being built. And, as it turns out, a major road near my university is experimenting with designated bus lanes. Talking to another student, I found that this is a relatively recent development and she thought that this was the only street in Beijing with designated bus lanes. However, if it works out, hopefully the concept will expand.
My two favorite models for sustainable urban transportation are both in Latin America: Curitiba, Brazil and Bogota, Colombia. Curitiba really pioneered the “bus rapid transit” concept in the 1970s – and, importantly, the far-sighted city planners integrated this concept into the design of the city. So today Curitiba has achieved one of the best public transportation systems in the world, at the fraction of the cost of an underground subway.
Bogota’s foray into sustainable urban transportation is more recent, within the last 10 years or so. From 1995-2000, Bogota had two far-sighted mayors who paid significant attention to the urban transit problem. Bogota built it’s own bus rapid transit system within the last ten years. Part of the financing for this and other public transportation improvements came from a large increase (from 14% to 20%) in the gasoline tax. Bogota has also encouraged the use of bicycles by building 270 km of bike paths through the city. And the use of cars has been actively discouraged:
“The Penalosa administration outlined a clear position regarding private automobiles; it regarded them as “the worst threat to quality of life of this city.” One of Mayor Penalosa’s main aims was to get automobile drivers and riders to use public transport. The “pico y placa” program considerably reduced congestion at peak times with a 40% reduction in private automobile use. Twice a week, private automobiles were prohibited from circulating: license plates ending in 1, 2, 3, and 4 were prohibited to circulate on Monday; 5, 6, 7, and 8 on Tuesday; 9, 0, 1, and 2 on Wednesday; 3, 4, 5, and 6 on Thursday; and 7, 8, 9, and 0 on Friday.”
I think Bogota is more similar to Beijing, at least to the extent that the city was designed before sustainable transportation became a concern. Adapting some of Bogota’s policies would be the best way to improve public transit in Beijing. Although I am glad to see Beijing experimenting with designated bus lanes, a serious push towards bus rapid transit could make a huge improvement. Beijing could also do a lot to make bike riding more pleasant – bike paths or more tree-lined streets would be most welcome. As for the concept of a campaign against cars, similar to that of Bogota, it would take a serious educational campaign on the part of the government because the idea of getting rich and buying a car is so ingrained into people’s conceptions of a better life. However, Bogota faced the same problem:
“Recent educational campaigns to change this perception have had important effects and must be continued to reach more of the population … When Mayor Penalosa and members of his administration periodically rode bicycles to work, they helped to de-stigmatize the bicycle to a large degree.”
In short, there is no simple fix to Beijing’s transportation problems. Subway, bus rapid transit, and improved biking facilities are all needed. And at some point, hopefully soon, the city will have to understand that the American way of everyone owning their own car is not necessarily the best way for Beijing – nor is it for America, either.