Cities of the Future: Made in China

From traffic-jumping buses to electric taxis, China is at the forefront of the world's flashiest urban innovations.

For much of the 20th century, the world looked to American cities for a glimpse of the future. Places like New York and Chicago had the tallest skyscrapers, the newest airports, the fastest highways, and the best electricity grids.

But now, just 12 years into the Asian Century, the city of the future has picked up and moved to China. No less than U.S. Vice President Joe Biden recognized this when he said not long ago, "If I blindfolded Americans and took them into some of the airports or ports in China and then took them to one in any one of your cities, in the middle of the night … and then said, 'Which one is an American? Which one is in your city in America? And which one's in China?' most Americans would say, 'Well, that great one is in America.' It's not." The speech raised eyebrows among conservative commentators, but it points out the obvious to anyone who has spent time in Beijing, Hong Kong, or Shanghai (or even lesser-known cities like Shenzhen and Dalian, for that matter).

In these cities, visitors arrive at glittering, architecturally arresting airports before being whisked by electric taxis into city centers populated by modular green skyscrapers. In the not-so-distant future, they'll hop on traffic-straddling buses powered by safe, clean solar panels. With China now spending some $500 billion annually on infrastructure -- 9 percent of its GDP, well above the rates in the United States and Europe -- and with the country's population undergoing the largest rural-to-urban migration in human history, the decisions it makes about its cities will affect the future of urban areas everywhere. Want to know where urban technology is going? Take the vice president's advice and head east.

Modular skyscrapers

If the speed of China's rise has been astonishing, it's about to get even faster. A Chinese construction firm has pioneered a modular construction technique that allows it to build energy-efficient skyscrapers in a matter of weeks, dramatically reducing construction costs and waste. This year, Broad Group will put that approach to the ultimate test when it builds a 220-story skyscraper -- to be the world's tallest -- in a mere 90 days in Changsha, in southeast China. (The world's current tallest building, the more than 160-story Burj Khalifa in Dubai, took six years to complete.)

Although the feat might sound far-fetched, Broad has proved itself capable in a series of trial runs. This past December, it completed a 30-story hotel near its headquarters in Changsha in just 15 days. The approach utilizes prefabrication -- 93 percent of the work on the hotel took place in a factory -- resulting in 1 percent of the waste of a normal building project. Also, by assembling large portions of the building beforehand, engineers can seamlessly integrate green features into the structure, such as thermal insulation and electricity-generating elevators. Already, Broad says it has franchised its methods to six Chinese companies and is in talks with two companies abroad.

A traffic-jumping bus

The Chinese bought 14.5 million cars in 2011 -- a figure that could increase to 50 million annually within a decade -- leading to massive congestion on China's roads. (A recent jam outside Beijing lasted 11 days.) Given these traffic woes, it's a wonder someone didn't think of the 3D Express Coach sooner. The premise is simple: If you can't go through gridlock, why not slide over it?

Known as the "straddling bus," the arch-shaped vehicle operates like a game of croquet, but one in which the wickets move over the balls. Developed by Shenzhen Huashi Future Parking Equipment, the bus can carry up to 1,200 passengers in a carriage straddling a two-lane street, allowing traffic below to flow freely (or not, if it's rush hour). The company claims the vehicle will reduce traffic jams by up to 30 percent, and because it doesn't require a tunnel or elevated track, it's 90 percent cheaper to build than a subway or monorail. The bus saves more money by generating electricity through solar panels mounted on its roof and at stops.

Electric taxis

Hoping to become the global leader in electric vehicles, the Chinese government wants 500,000 electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles on China's roads by 2015, and more than 5 million by 2020. It is already backing these aspirations with a range of subsidies, including up to $8,800 for every electric vehicle purchased by taxi companies and local governments.

As a result, China has more electric taxis in operation than anywhere in the world and is likely to extend its lead. On Beijing's outskirts, electric Fotons ferry passengers to and from the Great Wall. In the southern city of Shenzhen, which has the world's largest fleet of zero-carbon taxis and buses, cabbies drive hundreds of e6s, electric cars manufactured by Warren Buffett-backed automaker BYD. Shenzhen's government wants 24,000 electric vehicles on the city's roads and 12,750 charging stations by the end of this year. But those plans might have to be put on hold following a fatal crash involving an electric taxi in May -- the battery may have been at fault -- though safety worries in China rarely get in the way of ambitious government projects.

Safer, cleaner nuclear energy

Frustrated by electricity shortages in many of its cities, China is racing to develop nuclear technology fueled by thorium, which some energy experts predict will revolutionize an industry racked by safety concerns following Japan's Fukushima meltdown in 2011. Compared with the global standard of uranium, thorium is more abundant in nature, doesn't cause meltdowns, and produces less radioactive waste, making it a more attractive option for filling China's electricity deficit (though detractors warn that it is untested on a commercial scale and still has significant safety and waste problems).

Ironically, the United States pioneered thorium research during the Cold War before abandoning it in the early 1970s because of its limited use in making weapons. China (along with France, India, and Norway) has now picked up that early research and aims to become a global leader in thorium innovation. China is building 40 percent of the world's new nuclear plants, and if it masters thorium -- work on the country's first prototype plant is scheduled to be completed as soon as five years from now -- the technology is sure to play a major role in the government's plans to increase its nuclear power supply by 20 times over the next two decades and lessen its dependence on coal.

Bullet trains

With the world's longest network of tracks and some of its most advanced trains, China's high-speed rail system effortlessly evokes the future. But the country's latest innovation takes unlikely inspiration from the past. Shaped like an ancient Chinese sword, China's newest bullet train slices through the air at a maximum speed of 311 miles per hour, capable of traveling from Beijing to Shanghai in less than three hours and four-and-a-half times faster than the average speed of trains plying Amtrak's busy Boston-Washington Acela route (where speeds are limited by conventional train traffic).

In the future, trains like this might also be able to dart from city to city without even having to stop for passengers. Designer Chen Jianjun has dreamed up a system of pods that slide on and off the tops of trains in transit, loading and unloading passengers at high speed without the train actually stopping, which currently adds two-and-a-half hours to the journey from Beijing to Guangzhou. And with China's rail industry continuing to push the speed envelope -- researchers at Southwest Jiaotong University are working on a maglev-style train that shoots passengers through tubes at more than 600 miles per hour -- innovations like these might just make air travel a thing of the past.

The world's newest airports

Nowhere is China's ability to rapidly and efficiently build infrastructure more apparent than in civil aviation. From 2005 to 2010 alone, the Middle Kingdom built 33 airports and renovated or expanded an additional 33, at a cost of nearly $40 billion. This dizzying pace is set to continue over the next three years, when China will build another 70, including a mega-airport in Beijing -- the city's third -- that will have as much as double the annual passenger capacity of Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson, currently the world's busiest.

All this has transformed intercity travel in China, effectively shrinking a country that until recently relied heavily on trains and buses. Airlines are rapidly expanding their domestic networks (though traveler demand has not always kept pace with supply, as evidenced by the $57 million airport built five years ago in Guizhou province, which saw just 151 paying passengers in all of 2009).

China's airports also feature the latest industry advancements, including green technology, automated immigration lines, and cutting-edge explosives detectors. Passengers have taken note: China has two airports on Skytrax's influential World's Best Airports 2012 list -- more than any other country.

Solar power -- by the gigawatt

In 2010, China surpassed the United States to become the world's largest energy consumer. To meet its seemingly limitless electicity needs, China is turning to its solar industry, which already leads the world in panel production, and gearing up to produce gigantic solar plants.

A solar farm capable of generating 1 gigawatt of power is planned in Datong, a city in Shanxi province known for its coal reserves, while in Inner Mongolia a Chinese firm and an American company have teamed up to build a solar plant capable of cranking out 2 gigawatts, making it the world's largest, with double the capacity of most active U.S. nuclear reactors. Hong Kong-based China Merchants Group, meanwhile, is building a 500-megawatt solar farm with panels mounted solely on roofs, rather than on the ground, the industry standard. The company will use 32 million square feet of roof space, alleviating concerns about the environmental impact of land-gobbling conventional solar farms.

Reinventing garbage

As China's major cities swell in size, their residents are creating mountains of waste that ring urban areas, with Beijing alone generating 18,000 tons of garbage every day, enough to fill 29 Rose Bowls each year. In response, Chinese companies are developing cutting-edge recycling technology that could soon render landfills and incinerators obsolete -- or at least much less common.

Goldenway Bio-Tech in Beijing has developed a system that can transform up to 400 tons of food waste per day into fertilizer. The odorless process uses a specially manufactured enzyme that breaks down waste in just 10 hours, resulting in a brown powder Goldenway says is ideal for growing organic crops. The company operates 10 such plants throughout China, though it encountered resistance from residents worried about health problems and foul smells when it unveiled plans for a facility in Beijing.


Weapons of Mass Urban Destruction

China's cities are making the same mistake America made on the path to superpower status.

In the last five years, China has built 20,000 miles of expressways, finishing the construction of 12 national highways a whopping 13 years ahead of schedule and at a pace four times faster than the United States built its interstate highway system. Over the last decade, Shanghai alone has built some 1,500 miles of road, the equivalent of three Manhattans. China's urban population is projected to grow by 350 million people by 2020, effectively adding today's entire U.S. population to its cities in less than a decade. China has already passed the United States as the world's largest car market, and by 2025, the country will need to pave up to an estimated 5 billion square meters of road just to keep moving.

China's love affair with the car has blossomed into a torrid romance. In April, nearly a million people poured into the Beijing International Automotive Exhibition to coo over the latest Audis, BMWs, and Toyotas. But China is in danger of making the same mistakes the United States made on its way to superpower status -- mistakes that have left Americans reliant on foreign oil from unstable parts of the world, staggering under the cost of unhealthy patterns of living, and struggling to overcome the urban legacy of decades of inner-city decay.

The choices China makes in the years ahead will have an immense impact not only on the long-term viability, livability, and energy efficiency of its cities, but also on the health of the entire planet. Unfortunately, much of what China is building is based on outdated Western planning ideas that put its cars at the center of urban life, rather than its people. And the bill will be paid in the form of larger waistlines, reduced quality of life, and choking pollution and congestion. The Chinese may get fat and unhappy before they get rich.

Like the U.S. cities of the 1950s and '60s, Chinese cities are working to accommodate the explosive growth of automobile travel by building highways, ring roads, and parking lots. But more than any other factor, the rise of the car and the growth of the national highway system hollowed out American cities after World War II. Urban professionals fled to their newly accessible palaces in the suburbs, leaving behind ghettos of poverty and dysfunction. As Jane Jacobs, the great American urbanist, lamented, "Not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities."

Only in the last few decades, as urban crime rates have plummeted and the suburbs have become just as congested as the downtowns of old, have Americans returned to revitalize their cities in large numbers, embracing mass transit, walkable communities, and street-level retail. But while America's yuppies may now take "urban" to mean a delightful new world of cool bars, Whole Foods stores, and bike paths, urbanization in China means something else entirely: gray skies, row after row of drab apartment blocks, and snarling traffic.

If anything, due to China's high population density, the Chinese urban reckoning will be even more severe than America's. Already, traffic in Beijing is frequently at a standstill despite the incredible pace of road construction (a "solution" akin to trying to lose weight by loosening your belt). The situation is so dire that Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai are using a lottery to allocate a limited number of vehicle registrations. In August 2010, a 60-mile traffic jam stopped a highway outside Beijing for 11 days. There's a reason no high-density city has ever been designed around the car: It simply doesn't work.

The form of China's urban growth will also shape much of the country's environment -- and not for the better. As Beijing orders up ever more freeways and parking lots, walking, biking, and public transit are declining. Since 1986, auto use has increased sixfold in Beijing, while bike use has dropped from nearly 60 percent of trips to just 17 percent in 2010. The congestion, air quality, and greenhouse gas impacts of this shift have been massive: Beijing remains one of the world's most polluted major cities. Merely to ensure blue skies during the 2008 Olympics, the city spent some $17 billion restricting traffic and shutting down factories; it even employed 50,000 people to fire silver iodide at clouds to release rain. Across China, injuries to drivers, pedestrians, and bikers are on the rise. From 1992 to 2004, the bicycle-related mortality rate increased 99 percent in Shanghai, the municipal government found. According to state media, some 300 people die each day in traffic accidents in China, the world's highest rate, and traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for people under age 45. The underlying reason for these trends is no mystery: bad urban planning.

Many Chinese officials, including at the highest levels, recognize the need to move beyond the automobile. My firm has done a great deal of planning work in China, both for private clients and on behalf of U.S. foundations seeking to nudge this rising power in a more sustainable direction. Over the past decade, I've spent dozens of hours in meetings with Chinese planners and local politicians who understand that their country is on a collision course with Mother Nature. They are often already intimately familiar with my firm's eight principles of city design, from promoting walkable neighborhoods accessible by high-quality transit to ensuring mixed-use zoning and dense networks of streets and paths. On one trip in 2011, Qiu Baoxing, vice minister of housing and urban-rural development, as well as the author of several books on ecology and urban development, told me that reducing auto dependence and enhancing transit and walkable neighborhoods are the key to China's urban future.

IF A BUDDING AMERICAN-STYLE love of cars provided the impetus for China's urban reinvention, Swiss architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret supplied the intellectual inspiration. Better known as Le Corbusier, Jeanneret, with his vision of isolated modernist towers soaring above orderly streets below, left an indelible mark on the field of urban planning before his death in 1965. To Le Corbusier, the organically developed cities of his era, with their row houses and street-level retail, were messy, blighted, and inhumane. (He called New York "a catastrophe" and proposed replacing its ragged cityscape with one enormous "Cartesian skyscraper.") "Space and light and order," he once said. "Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep." To Jacobs, the American urbanist, Le Corbusier's vision of the city was "like a wonderful mechanical toy," but one based on "nothing but lies." Still, his ideas proved irresistible to a generation of planners struggling to redesign American cities that had been irrevocably changed by the advent of the automobile, and those ideas provided a ready model as Chinese cities followed a similar path.

Le Corbusier's weapon of mass urban destruction was the superblock, laid out in his utopian 1935 manifesto La Ville Radieuse, a form China's efficiency-minded traffic engineers have wholeheartedly embraced. Based on a network of wide, arterial streets, China's superblocks feature large, single-use development areas, often more than a quarter-mile per side and designed like barracks, inconveniently located far from workplaces and shopping centers. The goal is to move cars efficiently -- people are an afterthought. The ironic result is an alienating landscape that makes walking and biking difficult, which in turn increases congestion on the streets, with all the attendant social and environmental costs. Culturally, it's a tragedy for Chinese cities, which are seeing traditional neighborhoods, where friends and family could easily pop in for tea and conversation, destroyed by misguided development. Now people have to take a crowded bus or, if they're lucky, a car.

The congestion will only get worse. Almost 64 percent of the total population will live in urban areas by 2025, McKinsey projects, up from 48 percent in 2010; at that time, there will be 221 Chinese cities with more than 1 million people. Can China afford it? Transportation already accounts for 40 percent of China's oil demand, according to the International Energy Agency, and is expected to reach 65 percent by 2035. China is the world's largest automobile market, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace projects the country's vehicle fleet could grow from more than 200 million today to as many as 600 million by 2030. By that year, oil consumption is projected to have nearly tripled. Needless to say, finding all those resources is going to be a challenge -- that is, if Chinese cities don't choke on pollution and gridlock first.

The figures are daunting. But the engineers who run the Chinese ship of state are nothing if not good at math, and they have committed to making real changes -- building mass-transit systems, introducing alternative fuels such as ethanol, and promoting fuel efficiency and electric cars. There are still other things Chinese cities can do at the margins, such as introducing the sorts of "congestion pricing" schemes -- taxes on vehicles as they enter certain areas -- that have worked wonders in places like London and Singapore. Unfortunately, numerous studies have shown that the numbers don't quite add up, as these technical fixes tend to ignore China's fundamental problem: cities designed to accommodate cars, not human beings.

China's leaders have a limited window of opportunity to plan for prosperous, livable, low-carbon cities. They have the resources and the wherewithal to make the sweeping changes required to avert an impending social and environmental disaster of proportions unknown in human history. It might seem strange to think that a budding superpower must make shorter commutes, public transport, walking, and bicycling its top priorities. But unless it does, China's powerful economic engines -- its cities -- will slowly grind to a halt.

Kevin Lee/Bloomberg/Getty Images