Growing faster and larger than anywhere else

In December, China and Thailand inaugurated construction of a high-speed railway project that will initially cost more than US$5 billion. The route will eventually stretch 1,260 kilometres and link China and Laos with Thailand's cities and coastal ports.

As the Shanghai Daily reported, the project reflects China’s recent role in exporting high-speed rail to the rest of the world:

"In Turkey, China helped link the capital Ankara with the country’s largest city, Istanbul. In Indonesia, the construction on the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway line will begin this year. Also, China has announced it will build a high-speed railway to connect Singapore and the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur." 

In a relatively short space of time, the world’s fastest urbanising country has transformed from an importer of transport technology and knowledge into one of the world’s knowledge centres.

As China spreads its infrastructure gospel through its 'One Belt, One Road' initiative and associated partnerships, we looked at how changes to the country's domestic transport infrastructure have built a capacity that is now being exported around the world.


Planned expansion of China's network (km)

Facilitating movement

Great transport is one of the keys to supporting urban economic development, and China has clearly scrambled to keep pace.

Chinese urban migration has been concentrated within four economic zones in the east of the country. There, we saw the rapid development of a high speed rail network to connect all major urban centres.

This network is now the world’s largest, with 20,000 kilometres finished of a planned 30,000 – constructed in only a decade. It connects to metropolitan subways that have also been rolled out at unprecedented speed, with 3,600 kilometres in operation across 30 cities and approved networks due for construction in 17 more cities. 

Beijing and Shanghai now compete for the world’s longest subway system as authorities continue to extend these train networks, each with almost 600 kilometres of track in operation. China has built enough of these urban transit systems that it's become a global exporter of their components, like trains and carriages. For example, CRRC is a Chinese company that has recently set up a North American plant to service contracts for Boston’s Red and Orange lines.

China's mass transit networks have created new needs and opportunities for design. These include everything from the importance of a quality arrival experience that reflects the unique character and ambition of the city, to the greater value placed on every minute saved by an efficient subway interchange, to the increased need for safe, walkable connections between workplaces and public destinations surrounding train stations.

Public art and skylights at Tianjin Binhai HSR Station create a unique arrival experience for passengers using this key interchange to enter the city.

New era cycling

Cycling has been the traditional method of mass transit in China, but increasing incomes have translated to increasing car ownership. This is just one of the factors affecting the natural environment, with this change recognised as a major contributor to the increase in overall carbon emissions per person.

However, the recent popularity of innovative bicycle-sharing startups, such as Mobike and Ofo, offers hope that this trend may reverse. These two startups have received more than US$750 million in investment. As a result, hundreds of thousands of bikes have appeared on the streets of major Chinese cities in the last year alone. Bicycle sharing is transforming the experience of ‘the last mile’ for commuters moving between subway stations and their homes and workplaces.

Photograph: Lou Linwei / Alamy Stock Photo (original image modified by HASSELL)

As bicycle sharing became overwhelmingly popular in China, its providers begun exporting the model overseas. Last year, Reddy Go (a Sydney start-up funded by China's Bluegogo) became the first operator to launch in Sydney. Ofo begun operations in the UK via a trial in Cambridge and Mobike launched a trial in Manchester to mixed reports of the social benefits – and inherent problems – of dockless shared-bike schemes outside Asia, where incidents of vandalism have been relatively low.

Meanwhile, China's local city authorities struggle to accommodate enough bike lanes and parking spaces in existing streets, already flooded with cars, where hundreds of thousands of new bikes appeared almost overnight.

Interestingly, the main investors in new bike share schemes appear to be major tech companies and search engines such as Baidu and Tencent. This indicates that advertisers and others place high value on the potential to gather data on movement and consumption patterns within the city.

The new breed of bicycle manufactured by China's 30-plus number of bike-sharing companies has internet connectivity and GPS tracking, plus durability features such as inflation-free tyres. With over 20 million users opting into bike-sharing schemes, traditional bicyle manufacturers have reported falling sales in a domestic industry that generates over US$10 billion annually, according to IbisWorld.


(L) Proportion of commuters cycling to work; (R) Projected value of bike-sharing market (USD).

Making places for people

It’s clear that increased prosperity and an emerging consumption-based economy are changing the lifestyle choices of many Chinese people. Previous planning strategies to divide living, working and other functions within cities are becoming increasingly irrelevant to Chinese urban society. That’s because communities are becoming more digitally connected and informed, and have more leisure time.

We need to look closely at these major shifts in Chinese society to truly understand the challenges the country faces today – and tomorrow. As China's public and private sectors invest in strategies to address the country's rapid growth and urbanisation, human-centred and environmental design will be integral to ensure this investment translates into better liveability in China's cities.

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