Friday, September 3, 2010

Kaohsiung 2010 Papers: Thoughts on Share/Transport from Chengdu, China

This essay has been contributed by one of the 2010 Jason Chang International Fellows, Jane Voodikon, who introduces herself as follows: "Since my interest in transportation and planning is purely personal - I have no professional background in any transportation-related field - I hope to walk away from Kaohsiung 2010 with a more informed picture of transportation possibilities and the goals and objectives related sectors should be working toward." - Jane Voodikon, Concerned person and editor. Los Angeles and Chengdu, China.

Thoughts on Kaohsiung 2010 and the idea of sharing in transport

Since my interest in transportation and planning is purely personal - I have no professional background in any transportation-related field - I hope to walk away from Kaohsiung 2010 with a more informed picture of transportation possibilities and the goals and objectives related sectors should be working toward.

My own interest in transportation spawns from my personal history: Having grown up in car-dominated Los Angeles, I had rarely set foot on a bus until I went to college without a car. Over the next few years I saw that certain parts of Los Angeles were, in fact, decently served by public transportation, but I also saw the social stigma attached to riding the bus and lack of car ownership, and I saw the gross inequities in the public-transit system itself-better service for the wealthy, predominantly white areas, worse everywhere else.

When the entire MTA system went on a 32-day strike in 2003, my sense of the social injustice inherent in Los Angeles's transportation systems was cemented. Although everybody else I knew in L.A.-my family, my friends, and my colleagues-complacently got behind their steering wheels to navigate the freeways each day, I was convinced there was a better way.

In 2004, I relocated to China. In Chengdu - and, I suppose, most other parts of the country-shared transportation has been the way of life for decades. (Though it might be worth noting that sharing, in general, seems more common here than in the privacy-obsessed, ownership-as-way-of-life United States.) And these days, despite the people's well-documented lust for private vehicles, the country is still pouring plenty of funding into intercity high-speed train systems, light rail, and bus rapid transit, and has shown plenty of willingness to experiment with unconventional transportation systems-both sensible (citywide bike rentals) and not-so (straddling bus).

And while it's quite common for certain types of employers - schools in particular - to provide shared transportation for their employees, and bike-rental programs are popping up in more and more cities across China, other means of shared transportation face resistance in this moment when contemporary Chinese society on the whole is having its very first taste of private ownership.

Despite increasingly longer waits for taxis, for instance, waiting passengers would rather elbow each other out of the way rather than work on an impromptu shared scheme by finding others who are traveling in the same direction. Skepticism resulting from rampant theft, scams, and fraudulent behavior probably contributes to this resistance-nobody wants to be tricked into paying for somebody else's free ride.

In terms of shared street space, I would describe Chengdu's attempts at creating a harmonious environment for the very many, and very many types, of moving bodies on the streets a mixed success at best. On smaller streets where all traffic is thrown together in the same lanes-cars, taxis, buses, bicycles, electric bicycles, electric rickshaws, cargo tricycles-the cyclists and e-bikers are the first to be squeezed out of the lanes. Parked cars, with their swinging doors, now line the curb where bicycles once dominated. Buses and taxis often swerve into this space as well to pick up or unload passengers. Pedestrians habitually wander off the sidewalk and into this zone, too. It is an every-person-for-him-or-herself situation that can only be described as forced and begrudging sharing.

The situation on the big streets is not much prettier. During rush hour, drivers abuse the bike lane to avoid traffic jams. "Pedestrian" overpasses erected in the past year, ostensibly to ease Chengdu's quickly worsening congestion, mean that bikers now have the choice of getting off and pushing uphill and then slipping their way down the other side, cycling for long stretches against traffic, or cycling at least a kilometer out of their way in order to cross the street.

But the other options for the non-driver are equally uninspiring: Overcrowded buses that are gaining a reputation for being particularly unsafe (a handful of bus fires and explosions have been in the headlines recently) and taxis that are in such high demand that the average waiting time has increased to a whopping 10 or so minutes, up from around 8 minutes a year ago. Both these modes are slowly and steadily increasing in price as well.

This October, the much-awaited first line of the subway system will open, but only time (and the as-of-yet-unannounced fare scheme) will tell what impact this will have on the city's traffic situation. I speculate that it will mostly serve to further suburban sprawl.

On the other hand, there is a shining pearl in this madness: Renmin Nan Lu (People's South Road) provides, in my opinion, a fine example of shared street space. Recently entirely remodeled in preparation for the opening of the subway line (which runs along this corridor), the street is a four-lane thoroughfare with a dedicated bus lane, wide bicycle lanes that are separated from traffic by tree-lined dividers, bus stop islands that prevent bike-bus-passenger collisions, and wide, well-lit sidewalks equipped with numerous tree wells and benches. There are no pedestrian overpasses or one-way sections of the road.

Finally, is sharing cool?

Is it cool? is not the question at this point. For nearly a century, possessing one's own personal, private vehicle and the act of driving it have been the only means of mobility portrayed as sexy. (Well, all right, there might have been a fleeting moment when the romantic notion of waving a silk kerchief out the window of a departing train while your lover runs along the platform held the public's imagination, but the realities of Amtrak in the U.S. [slow, expensive, no connections] and ramped-up security have all but dug a deep grave for those visions.) The question is, how does it be made to look cool?

To answer that question, I would think the obvious answer is to look at the marketing methods of the automobile industry who managed to make car ownership so cool to the past five generations that we are now where we are

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About the author:

Jane has advocated public transportation and the disowning of car culture for the past decade, when life in Los Angeles presented her with the choice of driving with debt or getting on the bus. She chose the latter and as of 2004 has resided in China, where she co-founded and edits Chengdu's only English-language city magazine ( and website (, slipping in as many carfree pieces as a city magazine can tolerate. She shies away from the words "sustainable" and "green," although the color of some of Chengdu's buses are, in fact, green, as is her bicycle. Here K2010 topic interests include the sessions looking at bikesharing, streetsharing and the "fine art of sharing"

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