In the last five years, China has built 20,000 miles of expressways, finishing the construction of 12 national highways a whopping 13 years ahead of schedule and at a pace four times faster than the United States built its interstate highway system. Over the last decade, Shanghai alone has built some 1,500 miles of road, the equivalent of three Manhattans. China's urban population is projected to grow by 350 million people by 2020, effectively adding today's entire U.S. population to its cities in less than a decade. China has already passed the United States as the world's largest car market, and by 2025, the country will need to pave up to an estimated 5 billion square meters of road just to keep moving.
China's love affair with the car has blossomed into a torrid romance. In April, nearly a million people poured into the Beijing International Automotive Exhibition to coo over the latest Audis, BMWs, and Toyotas. But China is in danger of making the same mistakes the United States made on its way to superpower status -- mistakes that have left Americans reliant on foreign oil from unstable parts of the world, staggering under the cost of unhealthy patterns of living, and struggling to overcome the urban legacy of decades of inner-city decay.
The choices China makes in the years ahead will have an immense impact not only on the long-term viability, livability, and energy efficiency of its cities, but also on the health of the entire planet. Unfortunately, much of what China is building is based on outdated Western planning ideas that put its cars at the center of urban life, rather than its people. And the bill will be paid in the form of larger waistlines, reduced quality of life, and choking pollution and congestion. The Chinese may get fat and unhappy before they get rich.
Like the U.S. cities of the 1950s and '60s, Chinese cities are working to accommodate the explosive growth of automobile travel by building highways, ring roads, and parking lots. But more than any other factor, the rise of the car and the growth of the national highway system hollowed out American cities after World War II. Urban professionals fled to their newly accessible palaces in the suburbs, leaving behind ghettos of poverty and dysfunction. As Jane Jacobs, the great American urbanist, lamented, "Not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities."
Only in the last few decades, as urban crime rates have plummeted and the suburbs have become just as congested as the downtowns of old, have Americans returned to revitalize their cities in large numbers, embracing mass transit, walkable communities, and street-level retail. But while America's yuppies may now take "urban" to mean a delightful new world of cool bars, Whole Foods stores, and bike paths, urbanization in China means something else entirely: gray skies, row after row of drab apartment blocks, and snarling traffic.
If anything, due to China's high population density, the Chinese urban reckoning will be even more severe than America's. Already, traffic in Beijing is frequently at a standstill despite the incredible pace of road construction (a "solution" akin to trying to lose weight by loosening your belt). The situation is so dire that Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai are using a lottery to allocate a limited number of vehicle registrations. In August 2010, a 60-mile traffic jam stopped a highway outside Beijing for 11 days. There's a reason no high-density city has ever been designed around the car: It simply doesn't work.
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