Facing Smog and Sluggish Traffic, Beijing Upgrades Its Public Bus System

The traffic in Beijing is so bad, and the city so large, it is said that even its most efficient denizens can only accomplish one task per day. Hoping to change that local wisdom, the Beijing transportation bureau managed to do a few things one day in late December: it announced new bus fares, a reorganization of the bus network, a massive increase in public transit spending, along with mentions of transit hubs and BRT—all aimed at transforming Beijing's uncomfortable but necessary relationship with the bus. While the percentage of people using public commuting systems in developed countries is as high as 50 to 60 percent, in Beijing—where new cars hit the streets at the rate of 1,000 a day—public transit use hovers around 30 percent. (For more on the city's transit quagmire, check out an article I did for That's Beijing that was recently posted at China Dialogue)While much investment has been poured into roads in recent years to accommodate the city's growing car population (1,000 new cars daily)—destroying bike and pedestrian space in the process—and much hullabaloo has been made over the city's enormous upcoming subway network, the city is placing unprecedented emphasis on the city's buses, which have long been a symbol of Beijing crowdedness and inefficiency. Weary of growing pollution and traffic, officials are desperate to make bus riding more common—or even cool. "We are trying to make using public transportation fashionable for Beijing citizens," Liu Xiaoming, a transportation bureau spokesman, told reporters. Apparently, ordering cars off the road just isn't a sustainable approach to solving the city's traffic problems.

Though officials have trumped the reduced fare—down to a standard 1 yuan (12 U.S. cents) from as much as 4 yuan—it's worth asking whether lowering the bus fare by a few yuan will really attract more riders, especially those who can already afford to drive cars and take cabs. Over a week after the new policy was implemented, sources at bus companies have said the number of passengers had not increased dramatically.

Instead, at a time when Beijingers' incomes are rising, why not keep the fares where they are—or even, ahem, raise them? The system can use all the money it can get to make crucial improvements to bus frequency and quality—money that, well spent, all Beijingers could agree would be well worth spending. If it hopes to get through its transportation bottleneck, what Beijing needs is a holistic approach to public transit, in the style of Sao Paolo, Bogata or Singapore.

As Song Yan, an urban planning professor at UNC, told me about the latter, "They've focused on the quality of their transit service, the timing, the punctuality, comfort, and implemented a set of complimentary policies to entice people to use transit rather than cars." Such measures include gas taxes, a congestion pricing system for cars entering the city center, and a quota on imported cars. Though Beijing already places a high tax on foreign imports, officials say they have no other plans to reduce cars in the city. "When you have one policy even when implemented to a full extent it wouldn't do that much," Song says. Just as with anything sustainable, there's no single, quick fix: "You need a whole package of policies."

One policy especially promising for China—and every city really—is BRT, or bus rapid transit. First developed in Curitiba, Brazil in the 1990s, and recently expanded in New York City among other places, the hot idea is simply to create dedicated bus lanes for fast, double-length buses. Already, Beijing operates one BRT line running south starting at Qianmen, and is building three more lines. "It is as fast, reliable, comfortable and easy-to-use as a rail-based system, but is more flexible and can be built more quickly at a fraction of the cost," Jin Fan, of the China Sustainable Transportation Center http://www.chinastc.org/index_en.asp, told Treehugger. (His group, along with BRT China is working to promote the system throughout the Middle Kingdom) Here in the southwestern city of Kunming, I've read that car traffic has fallen by 20% and bus ridership during rush hour has jumped fivefold since a BRT system was introduced. Here's hoping even more people get on the bus in Beijing—and the rest of China—and rapidly.

See also Treehugger's How to Green your Public Transportation.

Tags: Asia | Beijing | China | Public Transportation

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