USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Mobility and The Automobile II

CHINA/ united states

China is currently undergoing rapid rates of development. As China becomes stronger as a nation, we are starting to see quantitative data that is truly jaw dropping. Throughout China, within the next twenty years, they are looking at creating 400 new airports to be built throughout the country, and the talk of airports only begins to touch the surface. With each of these airports, come complex connection systems including high-speed rails, local rails, subways, and intense highways connecting automobile and bus networks. All of these connections happening at a single node create the ability to connect these nodes creating a dense network of fluid transportation from city center to city center. This master plan is also being executed at an extraordinary speed, and if successful the ability for people to move from city to city will better promote larger distributions of people and commerce throughout China. With this robust network of public transportation, the role for automobiles in China starts to become almost insignificant. When you can get from Hong Kong to Shenzhen in approximately 14 minutes, why would you travel the hour it takes to get there by car?

The truth is though that the car is still a very important player in China, and this is mostly due to foreign influence and China’s new “capitalistic” business model. The car is still marketed as a luxury item. In china you see a higher distribution of luxury name brands on the road compared to other countries. These high-class automakers have launched their campaigns across China, and China has bought into their luxury model. In order to get a car in China, you not only have to buy the car, but you also have to buy the limited, distributed license plates. It is through this exclusivity that makes the car a luxury item within itself, through the basic principals of supply and demand. The role of the car in China is not necessarily driven based on transportation needs; rather it is based on image, wealth, and social standing.

These ideas of social standing through materialistic objects are demonstrated in the film “Beijing Bicycle”. The film focused on lower, middle, and upper classes of Beijing, and the tensions that exist amongst the three classes. The story’s true protagonist was actually a bicycle, which literally was passed back and forth through the different social classes. Guie’s character represented the lower class, where he was currently stuck. Guie was the first to obtain this shiny, new mountain bike that allowed him to experience and work for a middle class life. It was through this material object where he literally saw a better future for himself, in which other characters commented on how this Bike will truly raise him out of poverty. On the other hand, Jian represented the middle class in Beijing, and he also obtained the same bike for duration of the film. The bike was used as a way to blend in with his classmates. When the bike was out of Jian’s possession he immediately felt insignificant, and alienated himself from his peers. This contrast on the importance of a single bike to two completely different people and classes shows the power behind materialistic objects in China.

The end of “Beijing Bicycle” framed a street view, and the power of this image really summed up the complexity material objects have in China. The streetscape seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary for Beijing. The difference was the filter that the film set up to view this scene. After watching the impact one bicycle had on two completely different people, demonstrated the power of material objects in Chinese culture. The streetscape then took the idea of the bike and applied it to the automobile. The street was busy with car traffic up and down the center of the streets, and pushed off to the side was another lane of strictly bicycle traffic. This image addressed the idea on how severe social issues are in China, and how obtaining material items for transportation has become one of the key players in determining social standing.

The automobile plays significant roles not only in America, but also in China. In America the idea of necessity plays a crucial part on why we have so much dependence on the automobile. In Contrast, China could technically function without cars, but the idea of luxury plays a larger role in why cars have become so widely accepted. When the car gets put up on a pedestal, as the glorified form of transportation there is no doubt that it will create the desire to obtain one. With China pumping out more and more licenses every day, soon supply will meet demand, and we will start to see the car becoming more obtainable to the Chinese people, very much how the car became more obtainable to the American People. With China’s extreme infatuation with the intrinsic properties of materialistic objects, I question how far off they are from becoming another form of a congested America? With their new market driven economy the idea of ego will take larger precedent than with the ideas of a functioning society. Will the automobile become the new bicycle? If this does become the situation, then China will greater influence a two-tiered society, in which the car will act as one of the greater obstacles for the lower and middle class to overcome.

Ross Renjilian

Filed under: AAU, Architecture, Automobile, Beijing, Bicycle, Car, China, Circulation, Congestion, Public, Renjilian, Ross, Transportation, Uncategorized, Urbanism, , , ,

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


The views and opinions contained in this blog are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the views and opinions of the University of Southern California or any of its officers or trustees.



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