By Neal Peirce
GUANGZHOU, China — This is a "hot" world city — and more than by weather. From old "Canton," a port and backwater of fish farms scattered across the Pearl River Delta, Guangzhou has transformed itself since the 1980s into a top global manufacturer.
With a population of nearly 15 million, Guangzhou has more people than New York City. It is building spectacular "sculptured" center-city high rises (including the Canton Tower, briefly the world's highest structure). It produces an extraordinary array of goods for world markets, from T-shirts to automobiles, from toys to petrochemicals. Current product lines run from batteries to the "designed in California" iPhones that dominate the global market for mobile devices.
Guangzhou and the delta are served by flashy new high-speed trains and high-class air service. And the city proper has implemented a "bus rapid transit" (BRT) system to move hundreds of thousands of passengers through its downtown quickly and efficiently — a setup that's arguably state of the art.
The need for high-grade services is undeniable. In the last five years, the Guangzhou-Pearl River Delta economy has doubled in size. In 2003 it passed Hong Kong, the original wonder Asian factory for the world. In 2007 its economy passed that of Taiwan. It is now half that of all of South Korea.
On the economic side, there's been a serious price to pay for all the breakneck speed of development: horrendous congestion and seriously polluted air. And there's a human cost, reminiscent of the early days of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and America. Thousands of workers, many imported from distant rural Chinese towns to work in regimented private-sector owned factories, find themselves living under grim working conditions. I was shocked to hear one first-generation factory worker describe his working year: 364 days, only New Year's as a holiday.
For outsiders, it's hard to figure how long it will be before a worker rebellion — or perhaps negative publicity — will undercut the exploitation. It's true that the region's long-range goal is higher-value (and less polluting) manufacturing — as Japan and Korea, and Hong Kong, have achieved. But the economic incentive for lowest-cost manufacturing is tough to break.
And learning can occur, as the bus rapid transit system shows. On an early (1979) trip of American planners to China, I heard officials being urged to save China's bike culture and foster public transportation, because the country's vast millions in private cars would be a disaster. China, of course, didn't listen, discouraging bikes and pouring money into roadways. The net result: hideous gridlock and immense roadway demand (Beijing, famously, now has six ring roads). Belatedly, public investment has begun to shift to high-speed rail and city subway systems — of which China now plans literally dozens more.
In Guangzhou, Zhongshan Avenue — a key artery through the city and one of the world's busiest bus corridors — was a special nightmare of buses, cars, trucks jockeying for space, the whole moving tortuously slowly. So the U.S.-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) approached the mayor and suggested reconstructing the center of Zhongshan Avenue for buses only. Regular traffic would be relegated to the sides (still three lanes each way).
Guangzhou's mayor, justifiably suspicious, became convinced after ITDP took him to Sao Paulo to see a BRT system in efficient operation. Soon afterward, construction began on Zhongshan Avenue. But hell then broke loose as riders endured heavy rains and baking heat because shelters were temporarily removed. Local media called it a terrible boondoggle.
Yet the mayor was adamant, construction went forward, and the new BRT lanes — one each way and, importantly, including an extra pullover lane in each direction at the designated station stops. The result: no buses delayed by others loading or unloading passengers. In fact, passengers pay their fares to enter the stations and then know, by number and destination, precisely where to stand for the next bus as it swoops into its designated pullover location.
Net result, says Karl Fjellstrom, ITDP's man on the scene: some 850,000 BRT passengers each day. The buses continue, at the end of their 14-mile exclusive right-of-way, into neighborhoods for passengers' convenience (and fewer transfers).
Overall traffic congestion has been dramatically reduced, with each Guangzhou BRT station handling as many as 300 buses an hour. Rental bicycles are located at the key city stops. The bus stations have roofs so passengers don't need to wait in the rain.
Fjellstrom believes BRT systems — which can be built at a fraction of the cost, at a fraction of the time — easily trump the case for subways. One doesn't need to buy that argument completely to agree that from now on, in China, the U.S. and elsewhere, BRT systems shouldn't be seen as outliers but one significant way to resolve cities' 21st-century transportation crises.
Neal Peirce's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities or Nation's Cities Weekly.