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Can China Afford the Carburbs?

by Jerome a Paris Fri Jun 24th, 2005 at 03:41:55 PM EST

by DeAnander

promoted from the comments of my latest "countdown" diary by Jérôme

Yet three conclusions seem plausible: first, the pressures of demand are bound to be strong as what Lady Thatcher once called "the great car economy" comes to Asia... Are projections of US-style car ownership patterns onto the future of the developing world realistic? The "great car economy" of which Maggie Thatcher was so fond is ultimately a self-defeating system: except in rural regions of low-density population, when the ratio of cars to eligible drivers gets anywhere close to 1:1 (i.e. universal motorist status), the result is a vast inefficiency of transport with millions of person-hours and millions of dollars and I don't know how many BTUs of energy wasted annually on gridlock, car crashes and attendant injury and mortality, etc.

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The national and provincial economy gets locked into an endless tailspin of "predict and provide" construction of highways, freeways, expressways, parking structures, etc -- all heavily subsidised by the taxpayer and diverting funds from other social services (cf Hart and Spivak, The Elephant in the Bedroom, on the distorting effects of the subsidised private-auto culture on US municipalities and their tax revenues and outlays). The US highway system has been called "the last great Stalinist public works project" by some critics; more federal money is spent each year on cleaning up roadkill than on the alleged national rail system.

America has no comprehensive national train system. As in none, zero. Amtrak does not now and never has owned the rail it runs on, and so could not make improvements that would benefit the customer, such as bullet trains. The freight companies own the track, and neither speed nor comfort is a priority for them. Amtrak is also not subsidized at all (that means $0 for national rail) in the President's proposed budget, while the nation's highways (which for some reason are not expected to be self-sufficient) are due for $35 billion (with a "b"). The government actually spends more each year to dispose of roadkill than it does on the entire national rail service, and that is according to conservative Southern Republican John Robert Smith! (link)
The automobile also tends to displace more efficient people-movers (already Beijing officialdom is talking about banning cyclists from major streets -- banning bikes, in China!), reducing the mobility options of the less affluent and creating an overclass/underclass transport hierarchy. (Auto-induced gridlock paralyses bus and taxi services as well, etc.) There's also a trend towards decay and underfunding of existing public transport, curtailment of services, etc. as car ownership decreases ridership below a sustainable level, leaving those who cannot afford car ownership stranded. The end result is, in much of the US, "mandatory car ownership" as people of limited means find it impossible to get to their jobs without an automobile -- even if the expenses of owning and operating one eat a disproportionate amount of their take home pay (it has been estimated at 20 percent for some income levels).

Dedication of urban surface area to automobile transport forces light and heavy rail underground -- another form of displacement -- vastly increasing construction costs for new rail spurs and warping the CBA for such projects. And we haven't even started talking about air quality, though with notoriously poor air quality in many third world urban areas, the issue would be further incremental degradation rather than a transition from clean to dirty air.

Less obvious, more distant side effects include the annexation of lower-cost rural land into luxury exurbs as the affluent classes use their automobiles to flee urban areas: the resulting lengthy commutes are insanely energy-inefficient, but there are worse knock-on effects. These include the accelerated paving-over of productive farmland, converted into carburbs -- loss of essential agricultural capacity; the decimation of wildlife (roadkill is the leading cause of mortality for many feral species in the US) and the disruption of wildlife migration corridors -- loss of biodiversity and prey/predator balance; the "affordability" of large sprawling residences (due to remote greenfields development) which then require enormous amounts of energy to heat in winter -- increased fossil fuel dependency; and the coring-out and decay of what were once thriving cities. These trends are self-reinforcing: the decay of cities increases the motivation for urban flight, the number of people commuting enormous distances tends to grow, and the distances themselves tend to grow.

The shopping patterns of the carburb economy for example are weirdly inverted from a rational/efficient model: instead of a few heavy goods vehicles carrying merchandise to shops and markets in a dense urban core where individual shoppers make fuel-efficient pedestrian, bike, or PT trips to purchase, thousands of consumers drive private "heavy goods vehicles" long distances to load them up with goods and return to widely dispersed homes. The delivery activity has been decentralised and displaced onto the consumer, considerably increasing the fuel consumption. Fuel economy advances made in the US in the 70's were almost immediately consumed by increases in average miles driven per person per annum.

An economy with a cash surplus and spare productivity, such as the US was after the war, can tolerate and absorb these inefficiencies (for a while) -- particularly with a fairly low population density and abundant cheap fossil fuel. But can the economies of "emerging nations" with high population densities, in an era of rising fossil fuel costs, afford the grotesque wastefulness of vulgarised private auto transport and the enormous State subsidies required to make it "affordable"? With barely enough land to feed existing population, can China for example afford to permit the insane land use patterns that result from "car culture"?

The Chinese skipped a generation of phone technology as they modernised: they saw the inefficiency, resource hoggery and enormous installation cost of copper landlines and moved directly to cell phone technology. It would seem short-sighted in them or any other emerging national power to reproduce the inefficiencies of the late American automophiliac society -- a hangover from the 40's and 50's, increasingly dysfunctional today. So I wonder whether the Third World -- despite the consumer trance induced by sexy auto industry ads and the undisputable appeal of owning one's very own 'flying carpet' -- can afford to, or will be stupid enough to, try to retrace the auto-based development path of the US/UK/Japan. If they do, I doubt whether their economies, their medical/health systems, or their already-stressed agricultural resources will take the strain.

An afterthought from the Indian Journal of Critical Care Medicine:

the WHO global burden of disease (GBD) project, estimates that by 2020 road traffic injuries will become the second leading cause of disability adjusted life years lost in developing countries worldwide and the third leading cause in the developed world.[5] Road traffic injuries will rise in rank to sixth place from eleventh place as a major cause of death worldwide. Road traffic deaths will increase to 2.34 million worldwide, increasing on average by over 80% in low-income and middle-income countries while declining by almost 30% in high-income countries.[5] Today 1 person dies every 6 minutes on Indian roads; by 2020 that figure is projected to reach more than 1 every 3 minutes.[6]

Thanks for front-paging DeA comment. Great reading! Would be great if the Chinese could also jump a phase with cars, as they did with the phones, would save them and the rest of the world some suffering.
by Fran on Sat Jun 25th, 2005 at 06:34:02 AM EST
Excellent discussion, DeAnander. For my part, I'm really surprised that China would willingly embrace a car-based development plan. For a emerging industrial power, it would seem crazy to actively promote the auto system when there are better alternatives these days, and when anyone can tell that the days of cheap fossil fuels are numbered.
by byoungbl (byoungbl at mindspring.com) on Sun Jun 26th, 2005 at 12:23:18 AM EST

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