How Scooters Caught China’s Urban Planners Off Guard
Twenty years ago, the country’s top urban planning experts attempted to lay out the future of China’s cities. Drawing primarily from the experience of the United States, their plans differed in the details, but there was almost unanimous agreement on one point: unless restricted, domestic demand for automobiles would skyrocket, leading to urban sprawl and nightmarish traffic jams.
These concerns proved correct. Despite heavy investment in mass transit, car ownership has skyrocketed over the past 20 years, contributing to lengthy commutes and leading some cities to restrict their use. But planners’ myopic focus on cars led them to miss the rise of another equally important form of transportation that would take over China’s streets: the electric scooter.
In 2022, there were 350 million scooters in use in China, compared to approximately 230 million private cars. Some industry insiders believe that the true number of scooters may be much higher, as smaller cities rarely bother to register the vehicles even though they are one of the main forms of local transportation in the country’s vast interior. In Nanning, the capital of China’s southwestern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, commuters use electric scooters for close to one-third of all trips; but even in megacities like Shenzhen and Shanghai, electric bikes account for more than 20% of trips, according to official data.
Despite the country’s growing wealth, many families in China still can’t afford a car. This isn’t a bad thing: Scooters’ affordability and flexibility make them the perfect solution for individuals in need of an effective and efficient solution for short- to medium-length trips. This is most readily seen in China’s booming delivery and courier industries, for example.
But for China’s urban planners, the electric scooter seemingly came out of left field, and they have been slow to adapt. Despite scooters’ numerous advantages, including low carbon footprints and relatively high efficiency, Chinese road networks are still first and foremost designed for cars.
As a result, driving a scooter in China is extremely hazardous. The vehicles are the main source of road accidents, with delivery drivers at a particularly high risk. In 2019, one scooter rider died and five were injured every hour on China’s streets. Although blame for this situation is often put on riders’ widespread illegal behavior (such as speeding, running red lights, and driving in the wrong lane) or the unreasonable work conditions enforced by delivery platforms, another important contributing factor is that the road rules for scooters are ambiguous and poorly enforced.
For example, China’s traffic laws and planning norms still define electric scooters as non-motor vehicles. That’s the same category as bicycles, despite the massive difference between the two. The current speed limit for scooters in non-motor vehicle lanes in China is 15 kilometers per hour, but the government’s “Electric Scooter Safety Norms” only require manufacturers cap the speed of their scooters at 25 kilometers per hour. In practice, many scooters are illegally modified to go as fast as 40 to 50 kilometers per hour — much higher than the speed limit on many inner-city roads.
Moreover, even in major cities, many important intersections lack dedicated traffic lights for non-motor vehicles, with the result that scooters follow the same signals as cars. Yet, scooter riders’ field of vision is far more restricted and their line of sight much lower than that of car drivers; their turning radius, speed, and ability to accelerate and brake when entering an intersection also differ greatly from cars. Not only that — scooters are also smaller and therefore less visible by drivers, making them more susceptible to being hit.
Some cities have begun to pay attention to these problems. Guangzhou recently created buffer zones and special signals for non-motor vehicles at intersections, and Nanning has adopted similar measures.
Acknowledging these issues is a good first step, but these initial measures are merely band-aids that fail to address the underlying problem. China’s transportation industry is devoting significant energy to researching and experimenting with highly speculative autonomous driving models, while the hundreds of millions of Chinese who use scooters every day go overlooked. It’s long past due for scooters to be considered in urban planning and management, both in terms of regulations and supporting facilities. That means specific speed limits, dedicated turning lanes at intersections, and dedicated traffic signals.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editor: Cai Yiwen.
(Header image: A scooter driver navigates the streets of Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, April 2023. VCG)