Jerom Theunissen Photography


November 21-25

City in Context

Shanghai (Chinese: 上海) is a renowned international metropolis that is home to over 24 million people in the city proper. The city is China’s global finance and commerce center, home to several Chinese bank headquarters and the world’s busiest container port. New towering skyscrapers in Lujiazui (pictured above) contrast with the human-scale Lilong housing that still house Shanghai’s families today (see right). British colonial rule in the 1800s saw the city become an international hub for trade, which established a multicultural flair that persists to this day. A blend of cultures, both modern and the traditional, western and the oriental can be felt just by walking around the old city. Truly, Shanghai is the showpiece of China, where east meets west in a fascinating way.

As for mobility in Shanghai, the city has an extensive public transport system, largely based on metros, buses and taxis which account for 32% of mode share. Shanghai’s rapid transit system, the Shanghai Metro, incorporates both subway and light railway lines and extends to every core urban district as well as neighboring suburban districts. The first line opened in 1993, and by 2018, there are 16 metro lines (excluding the Shanghai Maglev Train and Jinshan Railway), 413 stations (second in number only to the NYC Subway) and 676 km (420 mi) of tracks in operation, making it the longest rapid transit network in the world. In addition, Shanghai also has the world’s most extensive network of urban bus routes, with nearly one thousand bus lines,operated by numerous transportation companies.

Shanghai's rapid urban growth is evidenced by its extensive mass rapid transit system. It is the longest system of its kind in the world, despite only beginning operations in 1993.

In visiting Shanghai, I wanted to gauge the cultural and institutional differences between Beijing and Shanghai.Higher levels of conservatism in Beijing and the geographic proximity of the national government may lead to different transport policies when compared with Shanghai’s more market-oriented and liberal urban policies. On its face, Shanghai seems to lead the way in China if efforts called for in the latest master plan (2017-2035) are followed. The plan calls for a “one-networked, multi-modal,fully covered and highly intensive” public transportation network, and build intercity, urban, and regional lines to a length of “more than 1,000 km each.” This integrated transportation system calls for people-oriented and eco-friendly development concepts, resulting in more attention paid to sustainable modes of transportation, like walking, cycling, bus, and rail. Eager to see how this future is being realized in Shanghai in 2019, I set out to explore the city and see for myself.

Dominance of the Automobile in Shanghai - Sociocultural Perspectives in Chinese Car Ownership

The first thing I noticed once I stepped out of the metro station near my hostel was an enormous highway overpass that separated and cut open the city. Pedestrians had to walk above the traffic (where I took the above photo) so as to minimize disruption to automobiles. Fences along sidewalks and at intersections subtly told me, "don't cross here!" Yet, many times as I crossed the overpass to reach the historic city center from my hostel, I saw the road filled with cars, at all hours of day and night.  How could this be, in a city with a state-of-the-art and extensive metro system? The answer, it seems, lies in sociocultural pressures,especially amongst the growing middle class in China. As Shanghai grew in affluence, more people aspired towards the status symbol of owning private cars. According to the Shanghai Bureau of Statistics, motor vehicle mileage doubled in the city between 2009-2014. Car ownership picked up too, and the 2.5 million vehicles registered in Shanghai exceeded 10% of the national car population in all of China.

Cars dominate Shanghai’s 12,000 km of road space, leaving little room for much else. This prompted Shanghai to issue a private car license plate-buying scheme in a monthly auction. In April 2018’s most recent monthly sale, around 217,000 bidders battled for 9,855 license plates. The average winning bid was 88,176 yuan($14,022), more than it costs to buy many domestically made cars. In 2017 Shanghai raised 12bn yuan in license-plate sales, about 2% of its total revenue (source). While effective at raising money for public transport and limiting car growth, the policy only further elevates the car as a prized status symbol and leaves out those in need, like taxi drivers, parcel messengers, or moving services. This scenario does nothing to help elevate the lower middle class.

Despite these controls and investment in the metro, the aspiration to own a car is resilient. Traditional economic understandings of transport choices disconnect from reality in Shanghai, and suggest that transport choices are not purely utilitarian. Rather, the burgeoning car culture points to the personal automobile as a point of pride and evidence of material success in Shanghai and greater China. But as automobile use reaches its saturation point in Shanghai, the city needs to rationalize the ceasing of new main road construction projects after 2020 and a limiting of the city’s area to 3200 square kilometers.  Perhaps authorities would do well to encourage other modes as status symbols too, with less-packed public transport or more cycling and walking paths.

Read this article about the recent decline in car sales in Chinese cities, the first since 2009. 

This excellent ethnography by Non Arkaraprasertkul and Matthew Williams rationalizes the conceptual framework for car ownership in Shanghai.

Humanized Street Design in Shanghai - A New Direction

With the 2017 iteration of the Shanghai Master Plan, the city sought to put livability at the front and center. Streets were posited as the main medium for action under the new “Shanghai Street Design Guidelines,” a collaboration between the Shanghai Bureau of Planning and Land Resources, the Shanghai Transportation Commission and the Shanghai Urban Planning and Design Research Institute. A major step forward for urban mobility in Shanghai, the guidelines pay more attention to the role of spatial and environmental design over engineering. Paradigms shifted from seeing streets as a vessel for road traffic to building blocks for neighborhood development. “Safe,Green, Vigorous, and Smart” measures include limiting street traffic speeds, creating intersections for pedestrians and cyclists, provisioning more green spaces, mixing uses at the street level, and more.

Design elements including bike lanes, street furniture zones, and green spaces shift the street from acting as purely a transitory space to a place to stay. Image source: Gehl

These guidelines were successfully applied to the rejuvenation of East Zhongshan No 1 Road, found in the famous Bund district of Shanghai. Nearby, the Huangpu River Waterfront was completely revitalized,becoming the main activity center in Shanghai. This once dilapidated, now iconic waterfront was rejuvenated under the “Towards a People Oriented Waterfront” strategy. Four core strategies made for a continuous and connected public space with diverse spaces and active edges.

The four strategies used in the design of the Huangpu River Waterfront. Image souce: Gehl

See this link to read about what world-renowned architecture firm Gehl suggested in Street Design Guidelines for Shanghai. Click this link to learn about the Huangpu River Waterfront development.

Parting Thoughts

Hopefully, as Shanghai carries out the street guidelines, streets can be made safer and more convenient to walk and cycle. Community life and leisure activities already flourish in and around Shanghai’s lilongs, but more clean and green design can entice more people to participate in the public realm. Through the medium of urban mobility, Shanghai seems to get the fundamentals right by reviewing traffic planning and street design, and turning it in favor of pedestrians, cyclists and public transit users. In my travels around the world, these modes are best at establishing a common ground for collaborations to take place among people, bringing life and personality to the streets. Advocating for more human-scale transport can fulfill the promise that city-living offers, without the mind-numbing traffic congestion. I look forward to seeing how Shanghai carries out these plans in the coming years. I’m sure it will be an even more fascinating place to visit once I return.

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