Although Shanghai had no skyscrapers in 1980, it now has at least 4,000 — more than twice as many as New York. In 2010, 208 million square feet of real estate, nearly 80 times the square footage of New York’s massive One World Trade Center, was constructed in the city. Above, the Jinmao Building and Oriental Pearl TV Tower can be seen dominating the Shanghai skyline as its rises from the banks of Huangpu River.
The choices China makes in the years ahead will have an immense impact not only on the long-term viability, livability, and energy efficiency of its cities, but also on the health of the entire planet. Unfortunately, much of what China is building is based on outdated Western planning ideas that put its cars at the center of urban life, rather than its people. And the bill will be paid in the form of larger waistlines, reduced quality of life, and choking pollution and congestion. The Chinese may get fat and unhappy before they get rich.
If anything, due to China’s high population density, the Chinese urban reckoning will be even more severe than America’s. Already, traffic in Beijing is frequently at a standstill despite the incredible pace of road construction (a “solution” akin to trying to lose weight by loosening your belt). The situation is so dire that Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai are using a lottery to allocate a limited number of vehicle registrations. In August 2010, a 60-mile traffic jam stopped a highway outside Beijing for 11 days. There’s a reason no high-density city has ever been designed around the car: It simply doesn’t work.
The congestion in China will only get worse. Almost 64 percent of the total population will live in urban areas by 2025, McKinsey projects, up from 48 percent in 2010; at that time, there will be 221 Chinese cities with more than 1 million people. Can China afford it? Transportation already accounts for 40 percent of China’s oil demand, according to the International Energy Agency, and is expected to reach 65 percent by 2035. China is the world’s largest automobile market, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace projects the country’s vehicle fleet could grow from more than 200 million today to as many as 600 million by 2030.
The figures are daunting. But the engineers who run the Chinese ship of state are nothing if not good at math, and they have committed to making real changes — building mass-transit systems, introducing alternative fuels such as ethanol, and promoting fuel efficiency and electric cars. There are still other things Chinese cities can do at the margins, such as introducing the sorts of “congestion pricing” schemes — taxes on vehicles as they enter certain areas — that have worked wonders in places like London and Singapore. Unfortunately, numerous studies have shown that the numbers don’t quite add up, as these technical fixes tend to ignore China’s fundamental problem: cities designed to accommodate cars, not human beings.
China’s leaders have a limited window of opportunity to plan for prosperous, livable, low-carbon cities. They have the resources and the wherewithal to make the sweeping changes required to avert an impending social and environmental disaster of proportions unknown in human history. It might seem strange to think that a budding superpower must make shorter commutes, public transport, walking, and bicycling its top priorities
China will only be able to partially blunt the move to a car-centric city. It is already too late to prevent going to over 350 million cars. China will be able to use some new technology to ease the pain, congestion and pollution.
China will develop and use the Broad Group Mass Produced skyscrapers which will internalize some of the transportation movement onto a lot of elevators where people commute within a very large building. At best this will be about 10% of the buildings by 2020 and 20% of the buildings by 2025.
China will have a lot of electric bicycles and electric scooters. Already there are about 150 million. China could have 500 million by 2025. This would be following the precedent of Taipei which has mostly scooter transportation on congested and dense streets.
China will have a lot of high speed rail.
The emergence of robotic cars will enable traffic volumes to increase by 200-500% without congestion. However, this will require all the cars to have robotic and computer assistance and communication to achieve the full efficiency.
It will take China two to three decades (along with the rest of the world) to clean up the cars to have almost no air pollution and to have fully robotic driving.
Foreign Policy also discusses the large push that China is making for more nuclear power and the high speed rail network. All of which has been covered extensively at Nextbigfuture.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
Known for identifying cutting edge technologies, he is currently a Co-Founder of a startup and fundraiser for high potential early-stage companies. He is the Head of Research for Allocations for deep technology investments and an Angel Investor at Space Angels.
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