Jerom Theunissen Photography


November 14-20

City in Context

Beijing is the capital of the People’s Republic of China (PRC),home to 21 million residents in 2018, and is the second largest Chinese city by urban population after Shanghai. The megacity is one of the most economically advanced cities in the PRC, and is one of the world’s leading centers for politics, finance, education, business, and culture. Thousands of new residents arrive in the city to access the jobor educational opportunities offered in Beijing, with the largest number of Fortune 500 companies in the world and 91 universities that consistently rank among the best in China. 

But accessing this opportunity comes at a cost for Beijing residents. A skewed balance between job and housing locations, rapid urbanization and motorization, combined with high population density, have led to serious congestion and air quality issues in Beijing. With more than seven ring roads,it is safe to say that there is adequate automobile infrastructure in the megacity. According to the TomTom Traffic Index, Beijing is the 10th most congested city in the world, and is one of the worst polluted cities in China.

These conditions have prompted a multitude of actions to alleviate the pains of commuters and move towards a more livable city. Firstly, consistently high levels of investment in public transport (metro and buses) has sought rapid expansion of the Beijing Subway from two to twenty-two lines starting in 2002. Today, over 300 km of additional subway lines are being constructed, with the aim of reaching a 998 km network length and 18.5 million daily trips by 2021. Secondly, Beijing has also engaged in transport demand management (TDM) measures, including vehicle plate restrictions and vehicle registration quotas. In 2018, Beijing was looking to propose congestion charges similar to London and Singapore in an effort to root out the problem of congestion.

I wanted to visit Beijing to see the city’s forward-looking approach to transport and development issues. Plans to further expand public transport and sustainable modes seek to boost the 72 percent mode share currently attributed to metros, buses, walking, and cycling.In conjunction, Beijing is moving towards a more polycentric urban form to alleviate housing affordability crises and congestion of transportation and public services. Finally, the city has also embraced testing new mobility solutions,such as EVs and shared mobility models to fill the gaps left by the public transport system. I was keen to talk to local stakeholders about efforts to create coordinated and cohesive urban transport policies that enable seamless mobility in this dynamic Chinese capital.

Polycentric Development in Beijing

The other megacities I have visited share the challenges Beijingfaces: environmental degradation, traffic congestion, resource deficiency, and soaring housing prices as the city develops. In 2015, the national government decided to follow a low-carbon pathway, and to solve the capital’s urban problems at the regional scale (Beijing is under direct administration of the central government). In recent years, policies of coordinated and integrated development in Beijing, and its two surrounding Provinces, Tianjin and Hebei, have been enacted to move “non-capital” functions to surrounding areas to move away from monocentric patterns to a more balanced polycentric development pattern spread across Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei.

Beijing’s city center has a high density of jobs and housing, with half of all residents living outside the Fifth Ring Road. Graphic by WRI

According to the graphic above, most jobs are distributed evenly between the five major ring roads of Beijing, but half of all residents live outside of the Fifth Ring Road. Disordered urban sprawl led to an imbalance between jobs and housing. This fact, coupled with a dense city center, imposes high transport and environmental costs on the area through longer commutes. One way to curb traffic is to reduce the number of residences and jobs in the city center. To this end, the municipal government announced the “Coordinated Development Plan of Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei” in 2015 to limit population growth and decentralize the city into four main areas serving "political,cultural, international communication and scientific functions."

One such decentralization measure is to move Beijing’s Municipal Government agencies and affiliated organizations to Tongzhou district, a satellite town 20 kilometers southeast of the city. Following government-related jobs, some 1.3 million permanent residents are expected to move from the city center to Tongzhou by 2035. The central government also plans to entice non-state-owned companies out of Beijing in the hopes of reducing population and job density in the city center.

To read more about the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Integration Plan, click here

A rendering of the newly developed Tongzhou District. Image Source: Beijing Review

These moves are not being met with open arms for all, however.The “non-capital” functions mentioned above have meant that many retailers in downtown Beijing have closed down their businesses and moved out of urban districts. The main victims of these decentralization efforts are migrant workers, who worked in community and commodity markets, barbershops,restaurants, and other services for years. Some Beijing residents I spoke with lamented the loss of migrant communities in the city center, fearful that Beijing will lose vitality and diversity as a result. This article succinctly touches on the issues surrounding these evictions and the impact on everyday life in Beijing.

In the future, the Beijing government should do better to synchronize decentralization and resettlement of populations in the city. New employment opportunities, services and facilities should be in place beforehand so as to make the process of finding new jobs and homes a more organic and natural choice. Cities that have done this well is Hong Kong, with the government building nine new towns from the 1970s to the 1990s in the New Territories. Before newcomers moved in, the government introduced industries, public services, and transport facilities. With a more polycentric form of development, I think Beijing can make good steps towards achieving sustainable development patterns that give residents several choices when it comes to finding a community they want to call home.

Dockless Bikes in Beijing: Challenges, Opportunities, and Solutions

While the phrase was first coined in the Mao era, China became widely known as the “kingdom of bicycles” in the 1980s. The vast majority of the population used bicycles to get around, and the massive boulevards of Beijing were overrun by thousands of residents who used the bike to get from A to B. The tide turned away from the bicycle in favor of the automobile as China became more prosperous in the 1990s and early 2000s. The Chinese automobile market is the largest in the world, surpassing the US back in 2009. But today, in 2018, the bicycle is back in Chinese cities, with more color and technology built in to the non-motorized two-wheeled transport mode. What prompted this sudden renaissance of cycling in Beijing and other Chinese cities?

In 2014, China paved the way for the dockless bikeshare revolution in cities at home and abroad. Companies like Mobike and Ofo led the way by offering users a cheap and convenient way of getting around. The system was innovative in that docking stations were not required, and instead the bikes can be picked up and dropped off pretty much anywhere. These companies envisioned a system that allows users to seamlessly mix public transit and bikes and serve as a potent first- and last-mile solution. Corresponding phone applications can the bike’s bar code and signal releases the lock remotely. Equipped with GPS, the bikes’ locations are shown to users on a map within the application.

Today, private companies collectively have deployed 23 million dockless shared bicycles in Chinese cities. In Beijing, I made good use of the bicycles when I was far away from a transit station. With rides beginning at 15 cents per hour and easy unlocking mechanisms, I found taking a bike around Beijing seamless and easy. My experience seems to be shared with Beijing residents too: the city's cycle mode share doubled to 11 percent in one year, while the city’s car trips have declined for the first time ever. 

Explosive growth of dockless bikeshare in Chinese cities hasn't come without its growing pains, however. The convenience of leaving the bikes anywhere often has been abused, with bikes turning up on people's doorsteps, in front of entrance ways, and even at the bottom of rivers (as I saw in Paris earlier this year). Cities in China responded by bulldozing bikes off of streets and into "bike share graveyards." Beijing and Shanghai swiftly responded by tightening regulations about where the bikes can be left, making the companies responsible for redistributing them every day, and giving riders incentives to leave the bikes in a more orderly way in designated spots. 

I spoke with Su Song at the WRI China office about the "pendulum of regulations" that have resulted from the growth of dockless bikeshare in China. Su told me that Beijing is proactive by regulating the total number of bikes allowed and ensuring they are parking in regulated spaces. What's more, she pointed to the new sustainable mobility database developed by WRI that aims to share how cities around the world are regulating emerging forms of new mobility. In this manner, these new modes can help cities move toward existing goals to improve air quality, increase mode share of sustainable transportation, and reduce single occupancy vehicle trips. Governments must ensure that these new services are affordable and safe, complement higher occupancy modes, and support environmental, economic, health, and other citywide goals to improve livability for all.

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