22 May Jonathan Cartu Declared: Transportation policymaking in Chinese cities
In recent decades, urban populations in China’s cities have grown substantially, and rising incomes have led to a rapid expansion of car ownership. Indeed, China is now the world’s largest market for automobiles. The combination of urbanization and motorization has led to an urgent need for transportation policies to address urban problems such as congestion, air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions.
For the past three years, an MIT team led by Joanna Moody, research program manager of the MIT Energy Initiative’s Mobility Systems Center, and Jinhua Zhao, the Edward H. and Joyce Linde Associate Professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and director of MIT’s JTL Urban Mobility Lab, has been examining transportation policy and policymaking in China. “It’s often assumed that transportation policy in China is dictated by the national government,” says Zhao. “But we’ve seen that the national government sets targets and then allows individual cities to decide what policies to implement to meet those targets.”
Many studies have investigated transportation policymaking in China’s megacities like Beijing and Shanghai, but few have focused on the hundreds of small- and medium-sized cities located throughout the country. So Moody, Zhao, and their team wanted to consider the process in these overlooked cities. In particular, they asked: how do municipal leaders decide what transportation policies to implement, and can they be better enabled to learn from one another’s experiences? The answers to those questions might provide guidance to municipal decision-makers trying to address the different transportation-related challenges faced by their cities.
The answers could also help fill a gap in the research literature. The number and diversity of cities across China has made performing a systematic study of urban transportation policy challenging, yet that topic is of increasing importance. In response to local air pollution and traffic congestion, some Chinese cities are now enacting policies to restrict car ownership and use, and those local policies may ultimately determine whether the unprecedented growth in nationwide private vehicle sales will persist in the coming decades.
Transportation policymakers worldwide benefit from a practice called policy-learning: Decision-makers in one city look to other cities to see what policies have and haven’t been effective. In China, Beijing and Shanghai are usually viewed as trendsetters in innovative transportation policymaking, and municipal leaders in other Chinese cities turn to those megacities as role models.
But is that an effective approach for them? After all, their urban settings and transportation challenges are almost certainly quite different. Wouldn’t it be better if they looked to “peer” cities with which they have more in common?
Moody, Zhao, and their DUSP colleagues—postdoc Shenhao Wang and graduate students Jungwoo Chun and Xuenan Ni, all in the JTL Urban Mobility Lab—hypothesized an alternative framework for policy-learning in which cities that share common urbanization and motorization histories would share their policy knowledge. Similar development of city spaces and travel patterns could lead to the same transportation challenges, and therefore to similar needs for transportation policies.
To test their hypothesis, the researchers needed to address two questions. To start, they needed to know whether Chinese cities have a limited number of common urbanization and motorization histories. If they grouped the 287 cities in China based on those histories, would they end up with a moderately small number of meaningful groups of peer cities? And second, would the cities in each group have similar transportation policies and priorities?
Grouping the cities
Cities in China are often grouped into three “tiers” based on political administration, or the types of jurisdictional roles the cities play. Tier 1 includes Beijing, Shanghai, and two other cities that have the same political powers as provinces. Tier 2 includes about 20 provincial capitals. The remaining cities—some 260 of them—all fall into Tier 3. These groupings are not necessarily relevant to the cities’ local urban and transportation conditions.
Moody, Zhao, and their colleagues instead wanted to sort the 287 cities based on their urbanization and motorization histories. Fortunately, they had relatively easy access to the data they needed. Every year, the Chinese government requires each city to report well-defined statistics on a variety of measures and to make them public.
Among those measures, the researchers chose four indicators of urbanization—gross domestic product per capita, total urban population, urban population density, and road area per capita—and four indicators of motorization—the number of automobiles, taxis, buses, and subway lines per capita. They compiled those data from 2001 to 2014 for each of the 287 cities.
The next step was to sort the cities into groups based on those historical datasets—a task they…