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Global Ideas

China moves to combat smog and traffic chaos

China’s teeming cities, home to millions, are blanketed in smog. The country is now trying to fight air pollution and traffic chaos by expanding public transportation.

A birds eye view of a traffic-clogged street

Guangzhou in China is making moves to expand its public transport network

China’s rapidly growing cities are grappling with massive pollution. At the start of the year, Beijing made headlines around the world with images of the Chinese capital blanketed in a cloudy haze.

Yet the city is just one of many urban centers in China where air quality has drastically plummeted. As the country’s middle class continues to grow, so too, has the demand for cars. China has the highest number of new car registrations in the world. In 2011, 14.5 million new cars were registered – a stark contrast from some 600,000 vehicles in 2000.

A woman covers her mouth while driving through the smog on bike

China’s cities have the highest level of air pollution in the world

With so many new cars, air pollution has deteriorated rapidly and roads are badly congested. Local governments and city planners are looking for ways to relieve the traffic and pollution by providing eco-friendly, sustainable transport.

Too often, say analysts, developing countries end up copying the car-based transportation concept they see in industrialized countries. „Instead of reducing individual transit and expanding public transportation, officials focus too much on building up infrastructure and easing the flow of traffic,“ says Jüren Perschon, an expert at the European Institute for Sustainable Transport (EURIST), in a strategy paper.

Guangzhou BRT – fast, green and clean

But there are signs of progress - take Guangzhou, for example. Located on the Pearl River in southern China, the city is an important manufacturing hub for everything from textiles to high-tech electronics and auto parts. Booming industries have attracted millions of people to Guangzhou, and the city – which is already home to some nine million people – is growing rapidly.

To keep traffic from spiraling out of control, officials introduced the Guangzhou BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) in February of 2010. The buses now transport nearly a million passengers a day, far more than most of China’s subway systems.

Buses run on their own tracks and stop in the middle of the street

Bus stops in the city of Guangzhou were placed in the center of the street

Guangzhou constructed a special corridor with designated bus lanes in the middle of the street that are exclusively for the BRT. Hoping to inspire residents to leave their cars behind, the city also introduced a bike sharing program that boasts 15,000 bicycles at some 200 stations.

“When you organize transportation, you have to think about the people, not about the cars,” says Karl Fjellstrom, the regional director at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which helped design and plan the Guangzhou BRT project.

What’s more, the city has also opened the Donghaochong Greenway alongside the bicycle path. The lush network of green spaces, parks and playgrounds offers residents a peaceful oasis in the heart of the city.

The measures have helped Guangzhou not only to ease its traffic chaos, but also to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. Thanks to the bus system alone, the city cut carbon emissions by around 45,000 tons in 2010. And it's aiming to save another 86,500 tons each year over the next 10 years.

Donghaochong Greenway – an oasis in the heart of a bustling city

Guangzhou isn’t the only metropolis turning to bus rapid transit systems. In the Colombian capital Bogotá, the TransMilenio system has a designated set of lanes for large buses that travel through the city, while shuttles drive passengers into the suburbs and back.

Bogotá has also invested in bicycle paths, pedestrian zones and green areas as part of its eco-friendly plan. In Johannesburg, a similar bus system called “Rea Vaya” helps decongest the streets and keep the air clean.

China’s green ambitions

But Guangzhou’s BRT system remains an exception in China - clean air is still hard to come by. The country has yet to set a cap on its greenhouse gas emissions, instead building new coal power plants to cover the energy needs of its 1.3 billion citizens. Some 400 new coal-fired facilities are planned by 2020.

A recent study by the Asian Development Bank and Tsinghua University revealed that 7 of the 10 cities with the highest air pollution in the world are in China. Only one percent of Chinese cities meet the World Health Organization (WHO) standards for air quality, according to another study by Peking University and Greenpeace. In fact, the particulate matter pollution in some Chinese cities is ten times the WHO’s recommended limit.

Three decades of unbridled growth have left their mark on China. The government has, however, recognized that mobility and pollution pose a threat to the country and announced major investments in renewable energy and sustainable transport.

Beijing’s current Five-year Plan has set ambitious targets to reduce pollution and save energy. Industrial production, which has until now accounted for 75 percent of China’s total energy consumption, will have to save 20 percent by the year 2015, and similar restrictions have been put into place for fuel consumption by cars as well. The government has invested around 11 billion euros in developing and rolling out electric cars on the market.

Warning against blindly following the West

But Chandran Nair, the former chairman of Environmental Resources Management (ERM) in Asia Pacific and CEO of the Global Institute For Tomorrow (GIFT), says China has to do much more than invest in green technology to truly make a difference.

“If you want to protect the air quality and health of billions of people in Asia, you have to place restrictions on car owners. Besides price mechanisms to tax gasoline and CO2 or high parking fees and tolls, you have to think about car-free zones by banning cars too,“ says Nair.

As the consequences of climate change grow graver and resources grow scarcer, Nair believes it is simply impossible to have the same car ownership per capita figures that are found in the Western world.

China’s economic growth and booming car market have pushed the demand for gasoline sky high: the country went from consuming 225 million tons of crude oil in 2000 to 425 million in 2010.

Nair says China will have to rigorously implement its green strategy if it is to cut its reliance on gas imports, achieve its eco-friendly targets and improve air quality for its citizens.

Author: Natascha Küter/ss
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar