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 Unfortunately, much of what China is building is based on outdated Western planning ideas that put its cars at the center of urban life, rather than its people.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