China’s Evolving Mobility Trends: An Interview with Daizong Liu

Interview conducted by Yuchen Tang, Head of Chinese Markets, Autonomy

Daizong Liu is the Director of China at the World Resources Institute Ross Center.

Having worked in urban transportation planning for nearly two decades, could you describe some key trends that you have seen throughout your career in China?Is it true that China is entering a post-car age?

The key trend in China is that transport has been evolving towards a multi-modal ecosystem. Firstly, passengers are offered more alternatives to traditional public transit or private cars, yet not one single mode is dominating mobility consumption, though we are witnessing the transition from car ownership to shared mobility. Secondly, the progress of technologies made it possible to develop shared mobility platforms such as Didi and Mobike. With lowered transaction cost, these on-demand mobility options became more appealing than private cars requiring large upfront investment and constant maintenance. The shared platforms also enabled the testing and scale-up of EVs, charging stations and autonomous driving technologies to participate and play increasingly important roles.  

2018 is a turning point for China. It was the first time where the annual total sales for passenger vehicles entered an absolute decline[1]. The first half year of 2019 is continuing along this trend, despite the robust growth of EV sales. Experiences from US and Japan have shown that this trend is hardly reversible once it started. That being said, entering such a “post-car age” doesn’t mean cars will disappear altogether. But rather, they will continue to exist as a commodity, an appliance, a tool for transportation, but less likely to appear as privately-owned vehicles. In a sense, cars will become a real “vehicle” for MaaS (Mobility as a Service) .

What are driving these trends? Concerns of Climate change? Technological disruption? Or something else? 

To sum up, there are 5 factors worth noting in China. China has limited land. The urbanization process has been approaching an end and a lot of first-tier cities are experiencing growth saturation in urbanization. For instance, Shanghai’s total allotted land for construction will be limited to 3200 km2 by 2035, only a 15km2 overall growth from 2020[2]. Yet the population growth is likely to maintain the same trend for the near future. The high population density means it is indispensable to outdate car-oriented urban planning, to reduce the need for roads and car parks, and thus to optimize land use for resident housing, greenspace and ecosystem.

Concerns for climate change and carbon reduction are driving revolution in mobility, but more dire is the need to reduce pollution from the transport sector. For instance, 45% PM 2.5 in Beijing came from the transport sector as of 2018, while only 20% are exogenous factors such as wind [3]. Not only does this call for the reduction of cars, it also requires better alternative mobility solutions so that people are invited to use public and shared transportation.

Meanwhile, China has seen a transition in consumption ideology for automobiles– Purchasing a car is no longer an impulsive or inelastic need for most Chinese nowadays. Especially because the limited resource to population ratio of China simply could not accommodate the full saturation of car ownership before the country reimagines its city planning strategies. Consequently, the government has been constantly rolling out a series of policies, such as the license plate restriction in 2010 amongst other 28 measures[4] to curb car consumption.

Technological development brought shared mobility and micro-mobility into reality, which in turn fosters the transition towards electrification. For instance, Didi Chuxing has employed more than 900,000 EVs on its platforms as of May 2019, according to Didi’s Data Bank.  The company announced the launch of a joint venture with state-owned BAIC in January this year to develop new energy vehicles[5] and more recently a with British Petroleum to develop nation-wide charging infrastructure[6].

On a macro-economic level, the Chinese economy is transitioning from manufacturing based to service based. It seeks to increase value added through a more sustainable growth. In the mobility sector, this big trend translates to the development and growth of car rental services and shared mobility platforms.

Could you give our readers a bit of insight on the EV revolution ongoing in China, and how it is changing the landscape of urban transportation?

It is important to point out that 99% of E-buses in the world are produced and consumed in China, while the corresponding data for all EVs is 70-80%. Amongst leading entities of EV producers, China is the only one appearing as a country , compared with California as a State.

On one side, China benefits from its country size and implements research and development as well as manufacturing on a large scale. On the other hand, the country is also clear about and determined in its strategies to develop EVs in several phases.

Phase I includes 2008 to 2018 and targets mainly at public fleets, such as buses and government vehicles. These vehicles are often required to park in designated areas at night, such as bus depots , where charging stations can be built on a centralized scale. Hainan Province adopted this strategy to experiment with public fleets at the beginning, and applied any lessons learned and data accumulated to private vehicles in later stages. In March 2019, this southernmost island province became the first Chinese province to announce an official target to achieve zero emission from buses by 2020 and a target to commit to 100% clean energy vehicles by 2030. [7]

Phase II shifts the focus onto commercial and private vehicles, where China seeks to implement and integrate more mature battery technologies, services and maintenance. The government is planning to phase out the central subsidy for EV after 2020, a major financial incentive introduced in 2009. However, the new energy vehicle mandate sets a certain portion of EV sales for automakers and will smoothen this transition.[8] Other policy supports on a local scale, such as shortened or no waitlist for license plate registry will continue to be in place to stimulate the development of EV market.

The phase beyond 2030 aims to tackle long-distance traveling as well as eletrifying heavy duty trucks. China also plans to upgrade the relevant energy system and infrastructure to meet the demand of increasing electricity use due to EVs on the road, which includes more microgrid integration and decarbonized sources for electricity generation.

Given the rapid development of EVs, do you see China also leading transportation planning ahead of Europe?

Despite its ambitious EV expansion, China is facing the challenge of large population base relative to limited land, hence it still has plenty to learn from Europe regarding transportation planning.

For one, China needs to transform its mindset of transportation planning from car-oriented to transit-oriented. Secondly, China needs to improve the resilience of these public transits, such as making the subways anti-wind and anti-flood, for which we can draw good examples from the Netherlands[9]. Thirdly, China should adopt more human-centered designs, both to encourage public transportation ridership as well as to make cities a more livable space. Eventually we hope to evolve from transportation integration to seamless mobility.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Daizong Liu is China Sustainable Cities Program Director and China Transport Program Director of World Resources Institute (WRI). He has led and managed a number of projects, including urban planning, urban development strategies, urban transport planning, complete street and public space design, as well as big data and quantitative methods for urban planning. He advised for Councilors’ Office of the State Council, Asian Development Bank and the World Bank on sustainable transportation and low carbon urbanization.  Since 2017, Mr. Liu serves as a chairman of Future Transportation Technology and Policy Section of World Transportation Convention. Mr. Liu is a renowned public speaker on sustainable city issues.

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