Prioritizing Transportation Investments: A Note from Chongqing

I recently was listening to a report on transportation policy and implementation at Southwest University in Chongqing, China. Chongqing is a place many Americans haven’t heard of (yet), but it’s likely to become a principal growth driver for China, similar to the role Chicago played in propelling economic growth in the U.S. Not surprisingly, this city faces big transportation challenges.

The biggest issue facing Chongqing is the erosion of mobility. Higher travel costs (in time as well as money) reduce its competitive advantage as a low-cost provider of labor and other resources as well as its central location within this vast nation as a logistics center. The challenge of improving mobility is reaching critical points. With nearly 7 million people in the urbanized area (bigger than Houston, Texas), the city is expected to grow to 10 million people by 2020. And that estimate excludes the “floating” population–people without permanent residency status with the local government. The Yuzhong District, equivalent to the city’s primary downtown, has over 700,000 permanent residents and a floating population of about 300,000. In population, that’s bigger than Manhattan.

Anyway, back to the presentation at Southwest University. The researchers were summarizing the initiatives the Yuzhong District government has implemented to easing congestion and improving mobility. They’re focused on all modes, particularly transit and rising automobile use. One of their biggest projects in a 3 km underground traffic circle that will link more than 6,000 parking spaces right under the Liberation Monument, an iconic tourist and high-end shopping location in the center of its CBD. They are also adding three bridges (two of which will connect to the traffic circle). In short, they are adding capacity at speeds that would bewilder most U.S. transportation planners and decisionmakers.

Chongqing is also heavily investing in rail transit, bus transit, pedestrian walkways and Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS). ITS is a catch-all for all the technologies used to optimize the existing transportation network, and includes policies such as traffic signal synchronization, ramp metering, and electronic pricing of parking facilities and roads. In the West, we usually refer to ITS technologies as “demand management.”

And there’s the rub. ITS is being examined (and implemented) in Chongqing as a way to manage demand but not to the exclusion of increasing system capacity for all modes, particularly roads, to accomodate higher levels of travel demand and more efficient deployment of publc transit. In short, the Chinese are thinking of solving their transportation challenges by focusing on improving both supply and demand.

How is this different from the U.S. (and Europe for that matter)? Over here, ITS is a euphemism for automobile travel reduction. Managing demand is really about getting people out of their cars and into a usually less efficient and more time consuming mode of travel (often public transit). Because the Chinese have embraced improved mobility as a cornerstone of transportation policy, they are focused on optimizing their existing network while expanding the system to meet increased and changing demand at the same time.

This is a much healthier way to look at the problem and leaves Chongqing officials with a much broader array of tools for managing their growing traffic problem and making their public transit system more efficient.

For more on ITS, demand management, and capacity expansion, look at the book Adrian Moore and I wrote called Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportaton in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield).

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.