Green and Smart (2) – How to Learn From our Mistakes: Save Your Cities From Cars

G&S_emblemBy Chris Busch 克里斯 布什

**This article was originally published in Chinese by The Paper on January 14, 2016. An English and Chinese version has also been posted on The Paper’s WeChat account.**

China’s urbanization offers incredible promise, but stronger action is needed to implement the goal of “building cities for people” for it to truly succeed. The danger is that Chinese cities will develop transportation systems based on private passenger cars. China is already experiencing crippling traffic jams and a staggering number of road fatalities. Motor vehicle emissions are the fastest growing source of air pollution in many cities. These warning signs have emerged even though less than 10 percent of Chinese people own cars.

California and the United States have learned firsthand the high cost of building cities around cars. The good news is that it is not too late for China to avoid making these same mistakes. The solutions are well understood and include a combination of direct steps to manage car use and indirect steps to support other travel modes.

The downside of cities for cars: evidence from California

For people living in California in the mid-1900s, cars initially seemed liked the greatest thing. The entertainment business emanating from Hollywood also helped to popularize car culture. Today, the state’s urban Californians have learned of the downsides of low-density and sprawling suburban neighborhoods. Sprawl means that housing is too spread out to serve all residents with high-quality transit. At the same time, sprawl imposes long distances between people and the markets, jobs, schools, and friends that are a part of their daily lives. The result is that people are forced into cars just about anytime people want to go anywhere. About 75 percent of all trips in California are by motor vehicle. This car dependence imposes high economic, social, and environmental costs.

Passenger vehicles are California’s largest source of air pollution. They contribute 25 percent of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions and an even higher percentage of local air pollutants. In contrast, walking and biking produce zero emissions.

While the environmental costs of cars are well understood, more surprising are the economic costs of urban development centered on cars. There are economic costs for government, families, and businesses. For government, public infrastructure and services are much more costly to provide over larger areas than more focused growth patterns. Building the infrastructure right the first time costs less. Cars are also an expensive mode of transportation. The typical car owner in California spends around $9,000 dollars per year on fuel and maintenance.

Time spent fighting traffic is another type of cost that is often unacknowledged. California is home to three of the five most congested urban areas in the Unites States. In Los Angeles, traffic congestion adds an average of 80 hours per year to the journey of the typical car commuter. In San Francisco, this figure is 78 extra hours per year wasted in traffic on top of the average commute time, and in San Jose, 60 hours. Time wasted fighting traffic cuts into productivity, and decreases quality of life, which makes it harder to retain the most desirable businesses (or attract new businesses and the talented employees they rely on). Livable, walkable, transit-friendly places perform better economically.

There are social costs to building car-dependent suburbs, too. People live further away from each other and spend more time driving alone. For the very young and the very old, car dependent places can make daily activities difficult if not impossible. The sedentary lifestyle that follows in large part from relying on a car to get around has been linked to the U.S. obesity crisis. When public transit is made a first class, convenient option, it offers people an incredible asset for mobility and access.

Correcting the legacy of sprawl: the San Francisco example

Today, California is working to untangle the low-density, car-dependent mess it created decades ago. The state has doubled the share of public transit and non-motorized transit options since 2000 and aims to triple them again by 2020 (commentary here and data here). San Francisco is a leading example of efforts by the state’s cities to correct the mistakes of the past.

Pedestrian Entrance to San Francisco’s Ferry Building.


An earthquake in 1989 toppled a highway that would have obscured this view. Now, without the highway breaking up pedestrian accessibility, the Ferry Building is a thriving landmark as well as a functioning commuter ferry terminal. (Photo: Chris Busch)

San Francisco has made great progress in prioritizing biking, walking, and public transit, and is acting on multiple levels to make it happen. The city is:

  • Building up its transit system: A 5.1 mile extension of the city’s light rail system was completed in 2007, and further expansions are planned.
  • Establishing a comprehensive network of protected bike lanes, and in the process taking away lanes from cars. As a result, biking has tripled in the city.
  • Prioritizing construction of more mixed-use developments (such as Mission Bay and the new 5th and Market developments) by speeding approval of permits for such developments. Mixed use makes biking and walking more attractive travel options. By providing nearby access, mixed-use neighborhoods allow residents to more easily walk or bike places. This cuts down on the need to rely on cars.
  • Using real-time parking pricing.This approach increases parking charges at peak times. This has the effect of discouraging people from driving into certain parts of the city during busy hours and it also is used to ensure some parking spots are always available. Since parking spots are generally available, this cuts down on people driving around looking for parking, which helps reduce traffic congestion.
  • Considering removing the city section of another major freeway, highway 280, which currently extends to the city center, after having already removed one freeway into the city.

These mobility strategies are making a difference. Ninety-four percent of the residents added to San Francisco since 2006 are taking transit, walking, biking, or carpooling. Only six percent are driving alone to work.

How new San Francisco residents are getting to work (commuters added since 2006).


Transit captures the largest share of commuters added to San Francisco’s population since 2006. Only six percent of new commuters choose to drive alone as their method of getting to work, while nearly a third chooses to bike or walk (SF Streetsblog 2014).

At the same time these new mobility strategies and other sustainable urbanization strategies have taken root in San Francisco, the City has become the focus of venture capital investment, regionally and nationally. Today San Francisco pulls in 74 percent more venture capital dollars than the San Jose region. San Francisco’s livability has made it a more attractive place for talent, drawing workers away from the traditional center of Silicon Valley, San Jose, that is dominated by sprawling development and parking lots. The City is also one of the fastest growing metropolitan economies in the nation. Places that are better for people instead of cars are also better for business.

Lessons for Chinese cities from the San Francisco experience

The Chinese government has put in place many of the right policies, promoting public transit as the priority form of motorized travel; issuing new national guidelines to encourage non-motorized (walking and biking) travel, supported with pilot projects in 100 cities; and, in its recent national urbanization strategy, prioritizing transit-oriented and more compact growth.

City governments must act more quickly to implement these policies at the local scale, and enact their own tailored policies. For local governments and developers, there are two key lessons that China can learn from San Francisco:

  • Control car use through direct and indirect strategies: Congestion charging and peak pricing for parking are examples of direct strategies. Also, there should be rules and strong enforcement to prevent cars from intruding into pedestrian spaces. Indirect strategies involve support for other modes of travel. Cities must make sure that public transit is a first-class option. While China has a number of bike-sharing programs, it can better support these with connected and dedicated bike lanes.

    Moreover, improving public transit can is an indirect strategy to manage car use. Public transit systems can also speed the introduction of clean technologies. China has been rapidly upgrading bus fleets to help fight air quality, mainly through switching to cleaner conventional fuels. Electric buses are an important opportunity for Chinese cities to consider, as these are increasingly cost effective.

  • Create an urban form that is more conducive to walking and biking: This means developing in more compact ways. Mixed-use development also increases walking and biking by making amenities more accessible. By taking these steps, China’s cities will ensure that avoid becoming dominated by cars at the expense of the quality of life for humans.

The world is watching, as always, intrigued by what China has accomplished in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, and by the vibrancy and potential of its urbanization process. The great hope is that China will lead in advancing the frontier of sustainable and livable cities, and in the process help heal itself of air pollution as well as underpin quality economic growth.

(Chris Busch is the Director of Research at Energy Innovation, where he leads the company’s work on Urban Sustainability. Prior to joining Energy Innovation, Chris worked in the nonprofit world and at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. In 2006, he earned his a Ph.D. in environmental economics from the University of California, Berkeley.)