Unsustainable China?

This text was written by Steven Heywood as a response to the article Guangzhou and a Glimpse into the Future: Changing China from issue 39 of Carbusters.

  • Basically, the article doesn’t tell any lies, it just leaves out a lot of truths.
  • In the editorial (p2), it refers to Beijing’s traffic problems and then says “there are glimmers of hope evident in smaller cities in China”. This is highly disingenious – Guangzhou is indeed smaller than Beijing, but, as the article itself states, still has a population of 13million people – almost twice the size of London – to describe it as a ‘smaller city’ makes it sound quite diminutive. Furthermore, although Guangzhou is smaller than Beijing, it is part of the Pearl River delta region, one of the most heavily populated areas in the world, with at least six mega-cities concentrated within a few hundred square kilometres, and a population of at least 60million people.
  • Guangzhou’s size is at least 7000km2. This is almost three times bigger than the entire state of Luxembourg. It is 14 times bigger than Prague. To sing the praises of the carfree nature of ‘a 0.7km2 area in Xiguan’ is absurd on this scale. This carfree area consists of 1/10,000th of the size of the city. (Source: Wikipedia).
  • It claims that a lot of the urban villages are used to house migrants from other provinces who come to GZ for work, and that housing conditions are often cramped and unpleasant. It then says ‘car ownership is virtually non-existent, because cars cannot enter the narrow streets’. No. Car ownership is virtually non-existent because it’s a slum. If you can afford a car, you don’t move to GZ to work in a toy factory for a pittance. And if you move to GZ to work in a toy factory for a pittance, you can’t afford a car. These areas have narrow streets because the main concern is to fit as many people as possible into as small a space as possible – they are indeed all very near their places of work (place of work, I should add, which are a considerable distance from the city centre, because people don’t put highly polluting factories in city centres), and to shops, etc., but if the GZ factory-slum-dwelling migrants are the vision we have of a carfree future, then I think I might start taking driving lessons and saving up for a secondhand Prius.
  • ‘As in other Chinese cities, Guangzhou’s newer high-rise apartment developments contribute to a sterile streetscape, facilitate automobile use, and penalise those on foot’. I would suggest GZs high rises do the opposite – without high rise buildings to house hundreds of people in a small space, the city would be even bigger and more spread out; most high rises are on ordinary streets with amenities and shops often on the street level, and certainly no further away than they are from the low-rise houses (which are often slums, unlike the high-rises); they don’t facilitate automobile use or penalise pedestrians because they allow people to live closer together than would otherwise be feasible in a city of this size – if I live on the round floor of a building and my friend lives on the 30th floor, I’ll take the lift to go and see him; if he lives in a low-rise building the other side of town, I’ll drive…
  • ‘The BRT is ten times cheaper than a subway’. But there is a subway already. And they’re building more lines as we speak. So your point is…?
  • And in fact, GZ does have a lot of characteristics that, in a smaller European city, would be good conditions for becoming carfree – very high density housing, a strong street culture, people living near to where they work and study, low car ownership, shops and restaurants always within walking distance. BUT, this doesn’t change the fact that, for whatever reason, GZs roads are packed with cars (and buses and taxis – taxis, in particular, are still so cheap compared to the steadily increasing average wage of affluent GZ that for anyone on a half-decent wage, you don’t need to think twice about hailing one – you might not own a car, but GZ taxis are like having a car constantly available anyway…), the air is filled with smog and pollution, the ears are filled with the beeping of horns, and pedestrians and cyclists are, in all but a few small areas, constantly being made to feel like second-class road users. This is not going to get better as the city gets richer.
  • Equally, let’s keep in mind that Guangdong province is one of the most environmentally unfriendly places on earth, producing a huge proportion of the unnecessary crap that gets airfreighted over to Europe, then sent by road freight into our city centres so we can buy it. Guangdong, in this sense, facilitates an enormous amount of unsustainable transport use.

Written by Steven Heywood

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