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by Art Hobson


Lessons From China


When I travel, I try to observe the development patterns of different places in order to learn lessons that might apply here. My wife and I just returned from a five-week trip to China. I spent the first three weeks teaching in Guilin, a city of half a million in south-central China. We spent the final two weeks vacationing in and around Shanghai, a seaport city of over ten million with a population density greatly exceeding that of New York City, at the mouth of the Yangtse River. We also visited Suzhou, a city of two million, and traveled extensively by train.

No longer the underdeveloped nation that it was just a few decades ago, China's economic growth is moving the country rapidly into the ranks of the industrialized nations. Furthermore, China has slowed its population growth to 0.6% per year (half of the U.S. rate), so that most of the national economic growth translates to per-capita economic growth. Thus, large numbers of people are doing better economically. The result is visible in every city, in urban renewal projects that typically replace many acres of small run-down shacks with tall modern apartment buildings surrounded by parks, civic buildings, commercial centers, and good transportation infrastructure.

In every city we visited, most major thoroughfares are broad boulevards for motorized and non-motorized transportation. A typical boulevard has a broad grassy median surrounded by one or two traffic lanes in each direction. Outside of these lanes, on both sides of the boulevard, is a wide lane for bicycles, and then a wide (much wider than any sidewalk I've seen in Fayetteville) sidewalk, with no curbside parking. The bicycle lane is separated from automobiles by a high curb. Fayetteville streets such as Lafayette, North Garland, North Gregg, College, and Old Wire could benefit from a similar treatment.

All three cities have large pedestrian-only zones in the central shopping district. About 1.5 miles of Shanghai's crowded Nanjing Road has been cleared of traffic and rebuilt for pedestrians. Bicycles are not allowed in this zone, although they can cross the zone at three places. Cars can cross at one place. The success of these zones is apparent from the hordes of shoppers and sightseers that they attract, and from the signs all over Nanjing Road inviting local stakeholders to a public forum to discuss the further expansion of Shanghai's pedestrian zone.

Such zones are common around the world, but less common in America where the automobile culture has spread out our downtowns, making it tricky to design successful centralized pedestrian zones. In Fayetteville, the square and Dickson Street attract many pedestrians already, and Dickson Street becomes a pedestrian zone during some special weekend occasions. It would not necessarily be a good idea to try to reserve these places for pedestrians only, but it might be feasible to approximate a pedestrian zone by narrowing the streets, widening the sidewalks, and surfacing the street in such a way as to make cars "outsiders" that proceed slowly while always putting pedestrians first.

China's national network of smooth-riding modern trains is far more advanced than America's sparse and outmoded network but not as extensive or fast as Europe's high-speed rail. Shanghai has a modern, smooth, fast, and rapidly expanding Metro (subway) system. The fare is only 2 Yuen (U.S. $ 0.25) within the central city and 3 Yuen to more distant stops. Obviously, this expensive system is subsidized with government money--a good investment in light of the huge problems Shanghai would have if the Metro didn't exist. The Metro is generally packed.

It's nearly impossible to park in Shanghai. There are no general-access parking lots, although there are reserved underground lots beneath apartment buildings and some city buildings. Thus, many residents choose not to buy a car and to rely on the wide array of sidewalks, bicycle lanes, buses, taxis, and Metro lines.

It is clear that Shanghai's transportation and living conditions would be impossible without its many non-automotive transportation modes. Northwest Arkansas needs to take a hint from such examples. Our lack of alternatives to the car is reducing our quality of life and wasting huge sums of money. The solutions are buses, bike lanes, denser development, good wide sidewalks, a commuter train along the Bentonville to West Fork corridor, and a highway-building moratorium.

Despite all of its alternative transportation, Shanghai has far too many cars per square mile. It seems to be true everywhere in the world that cars multiply up to the capacity of roads to carry them. Thus, Shanghai is plagued, like most cities in China, by a thick and ever-present layer of smog, and by traffic congestion that can make a taxi ride slower than getting out and walking. Shanghai, like most cities, needs to slow down its highway building projects and speed up its alternative transportation projects.

Urban renewal projects generally include one or more small- to medium-sized parks. Some of these are quite beautiful and peaceful. Some are free, while some of the nicer parks charge 2 Yuen.

A beautiful, broad, 2-mile-long, heavily used pedestrian walkway called the "Wei-Tan" has been constructed along Shanghai's waterfront. It is a little like the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, although the Wei-Tan is a gleaming structure made of elegant rock tiles. Tourists and residents love to sit, stroll, fly kites, and exercise here.

We Americans would do well to look beyond our borders for the good ideas that other nations can provide.

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