Getting a Dragon to Take the Bus: Sustainable Transportation in China

by | Traveling

On a recent trip to Shanghai, I was standing outside my hotel trying to wave down a taxi.  I was already late to a dinner appointment and it seemed like if every taxi was just ignoring me and driving by. With over 500,000 taxis in China, you would think there would be no shortage of taxis that are free and I really didn’t think I looked that bad! It turns out that most Taxi drivers in China have what is called a “taxi app”. Taxi drivers use this mobile phone software to pick up passengers based on their location and other factors such as if the passenger is willing to pay higher than normal prices or even funny short voice messages to the taxi driver.  There is clear shortage of taxis in most large cities at peak times and it is much more efficient for the taxi driver and more convenient for the passenger to use the app. But just like anything that is new, there has been government pressures to make the technology fair…ie..what if you don’t have a phone and cannot get a taxi that way? Shanghai recently put a ban on usage of taxi apps during peak hours. .

The taxi supply problem is just one of many strains being put on the transportation infrastructure in Shanghai and its 24 million residents.  In unrelated conversations, many Shanghai residents have even opted out of taking their metro train system which is one of the biggest in the world. They would rather be stuck in a 2 hour traffic jam in a car than stay in the metro for 2 hours. The main reason being the metro trains are all very congested and uncomfortable because of the volume of people.  But at the same time, a car travelling at any time of the day is guaranteed to hit some sort of congestion and traffic.  This could by why that China will soon have more cars on the road than in the USA by 2016. (this is significant because less than 10 years ago, China had 10% of vehicles of the USA).  Drive on any street in Shanghai and you will see BMWs, Mercedes, Ferraris and more Bentleys than you can imagine.


Parking is also becoming a very valuable commodity.  I counted about 30 people in one parking garage (granted it was a VERY tall building) as they were trying to direct parking on its multiple levels. Every car trip anywhere in Shanghai was guaranteed to have some sort of a parking fee. Although its reasonable now in cost to park ($3 to $4 where I was) this will certainly change and it wont be a surprise to see parking spots being auctioned off  in the coming years (a Boston parking spot recently sold for $300,000).

Adding to the clearly overburdened transportation infrastructure, vehicles are very evident contributors to smog and pollution. The photo taken here shows a 2PM and 5PM shot of the Shanghai skyline, showing how rush hour clearly contributes to the problem of smog.   Portable air cleaners and pollution meters are a hot selling item in China.


Given all the above, it will be a challenge for China to sustain its current growth and still have a functioning transportation infrastructure. Alternative modes of transportation and behavior changes will need to happen. The encouraging thing is that there are signs from the Central government all the way down to the individual that China is nimble enough to solve the problem.



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