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    Cars or Scooters? China’s Small Cities at the Crossroads

    Residents of smaller cities are embracing the personal automobile. But there’s still time to reverse this trend.
    Feb 20, 2024#urban planning

    China is now a car country. As of late last year, there were 336 million automobiles on the nation’s roads, and researchers and experts alike have taken note of how the car-centric development of the past several decades is remaking the urban fabric of China’s largest cities.

    But what about the rest of the country? Despite decades of outmigration, county-level cities and rural areas are still home to 46% of China’s population. These areas historically tended to be poorer, more compact, and consequently less car-centric than cities like Shanghai or Shenzhen, allowing residents to use electric scooters to meet most of their travel needs.

    That began to change two decades ago, as a sustained real-estate boom combined with a state-level urbanization push led many smaller cities to sprawl out in anticipation of new residents moving in from the surrounding countryside. But the effects of this growth on resident habits and transportation preferences have gone largely unstudied, despite their critical importance to the future of sustainability and inclusivity across much of China. How has the expansion of smaller urban areas affected residents’ lives and commutes? And is there still opportunity for them to avoid falling into the car-centric development trap?

    In China, a “small city” is classified as any city with an urban population of fewer than 500,000 permanent residents. Most of these cities grew out of large towns. In their original form, they were compact and dense, with narrow roads ideally suited to walking and cycling, and residents rarely needed to travel more than three kilometers to meet their needs. By the early 2000s, electric scooters had begun to overtake bicycles as the primary means of transportation in these areas, but their broader layouts went largely unchanged.

    Scooters remained the dominant mode of transportation as of 2018, when I began my fieldwork in the small city of Ganyu, about 500 kilometers north of Shanghai. Although car ownership was on the rise, about 60% of the residents I surveyed still used electric scooters to commute to and from work, while cars were primarily used for longer trips — those greater than 4.5 kilometers — such as weekend outings.

    Still, the growing importance of cars in places like Ganyu was immediately noticeable. The appeal of car ownership comes mainly from the changes that have taken place in these urban spaces over the past 20 years. Beginning in the 2000s, many small cities relocated their public institutions to purpose-built “new towns” adjacent to or sometimes far removed from the original city center, while local governments encouraged people and businesses to move from older parts of the city to these newly developed areas.

    These areas offer notable improvements in living conditions relative to the older urban centers they were meant to replace. But they have also split small cities in two, separating workplaces from homes and resulting in longer commutes that have made car ownership more appealing.

    Interestingly, in contrast to larger cities, which frequently suffer from extreme congestion, a follow-up survey I conducted in Ganyu in 2019 suggests that vehicle owners in small cities enjoy a superior travel experience. While congestion exists, it is concentrated around rush hour, and the duration is short. Meanwhile, people riding scooters are exposed to extreme weather and report a significantly worse experience traveling long distances compared with those driving cars.

    These burdens are not felt equally, as transportation choice in China’s small cities seems to closely mirror the gendered division of labor within families.

    Although it is common in China for both spouses to work after childbirth, traditional ideas of men as breadwinners and women as homekeepers remain entrenched. In small cities, this often manifests in men taking on longer commutes, while women tend to work closer to home in order to be able to care for their children and elderly relatives. This gender divide is backed up by the choice between cars and electric scooters: Among the families I observed, scooter drivers were predominantly women and car drivers were generally men. These differences in modes of travel have downstream effects on employment choices and everyday habits, quietly reinforcing the social roles of both sexes.

    Why does research like this matter? By recognizing the relationships between planning, transportation, and residents’ well-being, we can enhance accessibility, sustainability, and inclusiveness in a more targeted manner and ensure that small and medium-sized cities are developed according to local conditions.

    In particular, if we want to avoid creating the conditions for car dependence in smaller cities — and the problems like congestion that come with it — we must reorient small and medium-sized cities toward “compact development,” with a focus on organic connections between existing areas and new development, rather than building new towns from scratch far from existing urban centers.

    More moderate expansion will not only help to redistribute those living in crowded older areas but also keep commuting distances under control, avoiding car dependence and allowing travel and its associated opportunities to be accessed more equally by different genders and income groups. Such development patterns are also better suited to the creation of “15-minute living circles” — China’s preferred term for 15-minute cities — providing residents with abundant employment opportunities and public services within cycling distance, enabling them to make green travel choices while reducing carbon emissions and both air and noise pollution.

    Cities, whether small or otherwise, are best when people can flexibly choose how they travel and get where they’re going with ease. Rather than measure development by the number of cars on the road, we should define cities by how they spread the wealth: making their advantages, from thriving businesses to beautiful parks, accessible to all residents.

    Translator: David Ball; editor: Cai Yineng; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.

    (Header image: Scooter drivers wait for the traffic light in Dongguan, Guangdong province, 2021. Zhan Youbing/VCG)