4 Lessons on Scaling Up Sustainable Transport in US and Chinese Cities

Biking in downtown Beijing. Photo credit Benoit Colin/WRI

The world’s two-largest emitters have a lot to learn from each other—especially on transport.

Transportation is already a major source of CO2 emissions in both China and the United States—at 20 percent and 30 percent, respectively. The percentage of people traveling by car is increasing in Chinese cities, rising from 15 percent to 34 percent in Beijing between 2002 and 2013, creating air pollution and fuelling climate change.

Chinese cities have some of the most extensive cycling infrastructure in the world. Photo by Michael Kodransky/ITDP

It’s the reason officials and experts from the two nations came together at the recent US-China Transportation Forum in Los Angeles.

The annual event, bringing together public and private sectors, aimed to boost trade, accelerate knowledge-sharing and inspire solutions to common challenges.

Experts discussed ways to create more sustainable transport in cities—such as public transit, bike paths and pedestrian walkways—and coalesced around four big ideas:

1. Learn from the Game-Changing Pilots.

Local “complete streets” campaigns are popping up throughout U.S. cities, rethinking streets’ functions to be more multi-modal, multi-functional and focused on people rather than cars. For example, New York City has created slow traffic zones and closed some of its streets to cars entirely. These low-cost solutions produce tremendous benefits, including increasing foot traffic and revitalizing neighborhoods. In Seattle, reengineering streets with permeable pavements and rain gardens helps manage polluted stormwater runoff.

Now federal programs are emerging to help local pilots like these spread more quickly. For example, as the first federal bill endorsing complete streets, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act encourages cities to report progress on complete streets, requires the use of an Urban Street Design Guide, and provides grants to pertinent projects. Consequently, U.S. cities have issued more than 900complete streets local policies.

Similarly, mandated by the Urban Road Design Code, Chinese cities have some of the most extensive cycling infrastructure in the world. With WRI’s support, the national government will soon introduce a safe station access manual designed to help cities make streets safer for pedestrians.

2. Set Up the Right Performance Metrics.

The frequent failures of metro systems in New York City and Washington D.C. suggest not only a lack of maintenance, but inadequate performance metrics adopted by the transportation industry. For example, most transit authorities use a metric called “on-time performance,” which notes whether a train deviates from its schedule, but not how late it is. This type of benchmarking creates an inaccurate picture of a system’s strengths and weaknesses, which prevents problems from getting fixed.

New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is considering a better metric, known as Excessive Wait Time. It quantifies the lateness of a train compared to the scheduled frequencies, thereby capturing the waiting time of average transit riders and revealing real problems with transit operations.

Similarly in China, WRI has worked with governments to employ transit users’ satisfaction ratings as a key performance indicator of transit service quality, as required by the national 13th Five-Year Plan. The ratings will help provide a comprehensive assessment of transit services that would otherwise be overlooked in traditional metrics, like comfort.

3. Work Across Silos.

Urban transport projects often involve multiple agencies, like those dedicated to urban development, transport and law enforcement. Since priorities, funding cycles and performance metrics of different agencies do not always align, working across silos is extremely important.

In China, national grants from different ministries are sometimes are pooled to single local agency for coordinated usage. For example, biking improvement funding from the Ministry of Housing and Urban Rural Development is merged with transit funding from the Ministry of Transport for more holistic and comprehensive improvements.

4. National Programs Can Scale Up Local Successes.

National programs are essential vehicles to accelerate the adoption of sustainable urban transport ideas at scale, and the momentum is gathering.

The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015 authorized $60 billion— about 42 percent of the nation’s transit capital investments — to enhance transit services in next five years.  Likewise, China’s 13th Five-Year plan (2016-2020) provided unprecedented support to the National Transit Metropolis Demonstration Program. This initiative aims to empower half of Chinese cities financially and technically by 2020 to improve transit service and promote transit-oriented development.

Building on these lessons, both countries can drive great changes in their transport systems.

WRI is currently supporting China’s Transit Metropolis Demonstration Program. It tests ideas and develops solutions in Suzhou, Guiyang, Kunming, and Zhuzhou. It also scales up local success through national policy-making, handholding with the Ministry of Transport and other ministries.

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