Beijing's transit development is at a crossroads. The capital of the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases is in danger of locking itself into a pattern of Los Angeles-type sprawl with ever-rising CO2 emissions, a new World Bank study finds.
Reining in a fast-expanding network of suburban roads and bolstering a mass transit system might increase congestion, the study acknowledges. But it also will ultimately lower greenhouse gas emissions.
"Development and environmental quality should go together. If the environmental aspect is missed, then it might be too late," said Govinda Timilsina, one of the report's authors.
"In a city like Beijing or a country like China, this is the time to address the concern ... or it might be too late," he said.
Transportation is responsible for nearly 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and in fast-developing nations like China and India, emissions are growing rapidly. In China, especially, the country's economic boom has opened the door to soaring car ownership rates.
When the country started publishing statistics on private vehicle ownership in 1985, there were fewer than 20,000 private cars in the nation. Last year, the Chinese state media reported that there were more than 3 million automobiles in Beijing alone.
Gridlock and smog are companion problems, and there can be short-term fixes. Before the 2008 Olympics, the central government severely restricted ridership in an attempt to alleviate pollution. But when it comes to curbing automotive CO2 emissions over the long term, the World Bank study found, whether and where a city invests in new roads can make all the difference.
The authors used a model to divide and study two distinct parts of Beijing: the urban core, which accounts for about 6.8 percent of the land and where no new housing construction is expected to occur, and the periphery, where undeveloped land is plentiful.
In many ways, the authors noted, Beijing does not fit the pattern of a typical American city. The vast majority of jobs, about 79 percent, are located in the outer edges of the city, for example, and most commuter travel occurs in the outskirts.
Still, China's rapid income growth likely means the car craze will grow with it. The report warns that while putting money into expanding the outer edges of Beijing might be an attractive option, the result will be more driving, more gasoline consumption -- and more CO2 emissions. More importantly, it says, the pattern can be difficult to reverse.
China already has some important things going for it. For one, its fuel economy standards are stiff and becoming even more stringent. Earlier this year, the Chinese government outlined plans to require automakers to improve fuel economy an additional 18 percent by 2015. That means the average new car in China -- which now gets about 35.8 miles to the gallon -- will be required to get 42.2 miles to a gallon.
Meanwhile, some experts say China's car boom might not create the suburban sprawl that marks much of the United States. In a column last year, the World Resources Institute's Deborah Seligsohn, who has lived in China more than 20 years, noted that in China, unlike in America, cars are not must-have items outside the wealthiest cities. Smaller cities and towns, she said, have seen far smaller car growth.
The real problem, she said, is industrial emissions. "There is no question that smart transportation planning would help China avoid vehicle-caused smog and global warming in the future," Seligsohn wrote. "But for the here and now, the real challenges are in industry."