USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

A City In Motion

Sitting amidst Beijing’s afternoon rush-hour congestion, I couldn’t help but be lulled to sleep by the melodic ebb and flow of traffic.  It had been two months since I relinquished my automotive lifestyle and Beijing’s daily commutes couldn’t have been more effective at remedying my symptoms of homesickness.  Our perception of the city was becoming ever more framed by the windows of our tour bus as it traversed the congested network of concentric ring roads.  This was a far cry from the bicycle-laden Beijing of two decades prior, when navigating the city by human power alone was a viable option.  Now, as the city wraps up construction of its 6th ring road, which will undoubtedly not be its last, the human experience is increasingly being consumed by automotive gridlock.  The prevalence of this phenomenon can be attributed to China’s recent jump in rates of car ownership, even surpassing that of the United States.  In an attempt to kick-start China’s automotive industry, personal automobiles are being targeted as the preferred form of transport.  Many residents are driving their cars as status symbols – bicycles are perceived as third world entities and subways are characteristically proletarian – rather than because the car gets them to their destination more quickly.

The Chinese are betting heavily on infrastructure as the foundation for long-term economic growth, but whether that infrastructure entails road networks or regional rapid transit is an important distinction to be made.  Looking at two of China’s fastest developing cities, Shenzhen and Shanghai, there is a clear dichotomy in the approach to urban infrastructure.  After the fall of the Maoist regime, Deng Xiaoping set up the “Guangdong model” which consisted of removing government interference and handing infrastructural development over to the private sector.  If the private sector didn’t deem public transport as an integral part of the city’s future growth it would simply not invest in it.  As a result, Shenzhen’s first subway line was not completed until a year ago, since the road network was assumed to be sufficient.  After Deng Xiaoping came Jiang Zemin hailing from Shanghai.  The “Shanghai model” he proposed was much more government influenced, much more planned and controlled.  It was grounded on the provision of a public infrastructure on which industry could thrive.  If Shanghai’s projected population growth of 20 million residents by 2020 were to rely on the automobile alone, the streets would be overburdened and mobility would come to an utter standstill.  Extensive regional public transit thus became the only logical response for China’s rapid urbanization and the “Shanghai model” has since become the dominant approach to infrastructural development.

Commuting via metro around Shanghai over the past few weeks has given me a first hand experience and appreciation for this “Shanghai model”.  Just fifteen years after establishing its first metro line, Shanghai now holds the title of having the world’s longest network of rapid transit with a total of 420km of line and 282 stations.  This feat is even more remarkable considering Shanghai has only completed half of its rapid transit expansion plans.  By 2020, “this city alone will have more rapid transit mileage than the entire country of Japan.”  So although the flow of rural immigrants into municipalities will likely increase over the next decade, cities like Shanghai will be aptly prepared for a sustainable growth in density.  Nate Stein in his article Sky’s the Limit in Well Planned City of Shanghai, outlines the significance of having rapid transit systems for the convenience of commuters to reach various nodal destinations across the city; “Besides geographic and political boundaries, a city may have an invisible boundary at the distance that is about 45 minutes from downtown.  Beyond this border, people will look for work outside of the downtown area to avoid the long commute.”  He goes on to say that Shanghai’s growth potential was greatly expanded when its ‘invisible border’ was pushed further outwards as a result of its extensive subway system.

Moving beyond the economic and political ramifications of infrastructural development, there is huge potential for Chinese cities to dictate the quality of the human experience.  So much of a city dwellers day-to-day life revolves around getting from one part of the city to another.  How people traverse urban fabric, whether it be horizontally or vertically, efficiently or inefficiently, collectively or individually, directly affects their quality of living.  In Xiaoshuai Wang’s Beijing Bicycle, the act of cycling through Beijing’s vibrant hutongs gives a romanticized view of the city – whilst my personal experience of the city was more characteristic of the never-ending traffic jam in Jean-Luc Godard’s Week End.  While cycling allows the user to move at their own pace and dictate their own path, the automobile restricts one’s movement to the road and puts them at the mercy of existing road conditions.  Conversely, there is a sense of scale in Beijing Bicycle, which seems to foster human interactivity.  People cross paths spontaneously or ride in groups through a maze of narrow alleys and streets – it certainly leaves the motorist with something to be desired.

As our time in Asia winds down, I can’t help but be reminded of my own human experience back home in Los Angeles.  In light of the remarkable gains of the “Shanghai model”, Los Angeles doesn’t appear to have an optimistic outlook for it’s economic and infrastructural development.  What took Shanghai three years to complete will take Los Angeles a painstakingly long 30 years (2039 being the projected completion date of 3 new metro lines).    Until decisive action is taken to prepare for our increasingly urban futures, I can only hope that the extra lane on the I-405 will shorten my daily commute.

Bryn Garrett

Yonah Freemark.Shanghai’s Metro, Now World’s Longest, Continues to Grow Quickly as China Invests in Rapid Transit.”  The Transport Politic

Filed under: Beijing, Bicycle, China, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Subway, Urbanism

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Andrew Liang
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu

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