What can we learn from a massive laboratory for urban growth?
For decades, China’s government has tried to limit the size of Beijing, the capital, through strict residency permits. Now, the government has embarked on an ambitious plan to make Beijing the center of a new supercity of 130 million people.
The planned megalopolis, a metropolitan area that would be about six times the size of the New York City metro, is meant to invigorate northern China’s economy and become a laboratory for modern urban growth.
“The supercity is the vanguard of economic reform,” said Liu Gang, a professor at Nankai University in Tianjin and an advisor to local governments on regional development. “It reflects the senior leadership’s views on the need for integration, innovation and environmental protection.”
The need for reinvention in this area is poignantly evident from stories about retirees in Yanjiao: how older family members stand in commuter queues from the very early hours to save places for their younger family members so that the exhausted workers can have extra sleep before their long commutes. Sadly, for many people, the creation of the supercity so far has meant ever-longer commutes on gridlocked highways to the capital.
Infrastructure has also lagged. Until recently, high speed rail failed to connect many vital cities around Beijing, while many roads did not link up. Planning reports say the area has 18 “beheaded” highways — major arteries built in one of the three districts but not linked to others. One highway ends at a bridge over the mostly dried-out river dividing Yanjiao from Beijing, and has remained unfinished for years.
This is why infrastructure, especially high-speed rail, will be critical. According to Zhang Gui, a professor at the Hebei University of Technology, Chinese planners used to follow a rule of thumb they learned from the West: All parts of an urban area should be within 60 miles of each other, or the average amount of highway that can be covered in an hour of driving. Beyond that, people cannot effectively commute.
High-speed rail has changed that equation for the new super city. Chinese trains now easily hit 150 to 185 miles an hour, allowing the urban area to expand. A new line between Beijing and Tianjin cut travel times from three hours to 37 minutes. That train has become so crowded that a second track is being laid.
The lesson is that speed replaces distance because it can radically expand the scope of what an economic area can be like. This insight is applicable to any area, but especially here in Australia, where distance must always be a prime consideration.