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FEATURE STORY November 16, 2018

Reducing Traffic Congestion and Emission in Chinese Cities

China is the largest car market in the world today. In large cities, the increases in private car ownership and usage are especially rapid, as they generally experience faster economic growth and enjoy higher household disposable incomes than smaller cities and rural areas. This also means many large cities in China experience severe traffic congestion, as well as air pollution and high carbon emissions.

The transport sector accounted for 55% of China’s oil consumption in 2015, almost double what it was in 1990. Transport-related carbon dioxide emissions were estimated at 900 million tons in China in 2016 and are expected to continue to increase as more cars hit the road.  

In 2011, the Chinese Ministry of Transport launched a program to promote the development of public transit metropolises as a strategy to address traffic congestion. A public transit metropolis is a city with the public transport modal share exceeding 60% of all motorized commuters.  The government seeks to improve the attractiveness of public transport in large cities through increased investment in infrastructure, expanded and improved services, enhanced roadway priority and favorable operational policies.

“The Chinese Government is committed to fighting climate change and reducing carbon emission as a fundamental national policy.  As a large carbon emitter and energy consumer, the transport sector has to make its contribution,” said Liu Dong, an official of the Chinese Ministry of Transport.

“For this reason, we applied for the Global Environment Facility for the Large City Congestion and Carbon Reduction Project. By learning international experience and piloting and demonstrating in selected Chinese cities, we hope to find an urban transport development path that is resource-saving, environmental-friendly and suitable to China’s country context,” said Liu.

The project received a grant of US$18.18 million from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) in March 2013. Implemented with the World Bank’s support, the project promotes a comprehensive approach and complements implementation of the public transport metropolises program by developing, piloting and demonstrating travel demand management (TDM) strategies and measures, transit-oriented development (TOD), intelligent transport systems (ITS), and advanced public transport systems (APTS). 

"Though the total carbon emissions are still on a rising trend, the three cities have already achieved some emission reduction results compared with the business-as-usual scenario. Reductions have reached 0.95, 1.53 and 0.98 million tons in Suzhou, Chengdu and Harbin respectively."
Liao Kai
Researcher of the China Academy of Transport Science

Improving public transport efficiency and service in three major cities

The scope of project activities ranges from policy, strategy and technical guidelines at the central level, to policy, strategy, implementation and monitoring and evaluation at the local level.  To establish models as well as to evaluate the impact of various public transport improvements and travel demand management measures across a range of cities, three large cities were selected for pilot demonstration: Suzhou in Jiangsu Province, Chengdu in Sichuan Province, and Harbin in Heilongjiang Province.

Like other big cities in China, these three cities have experienced a rapid increase in car ownership and usage in recent years. By 2017, Suzhou had more than 3 million vehicles, about 300 vehicles per thousand people; Chengdu had 4.7 million vehicles, second only to Beijing; and Harbin had 1.62 million vehicles and counting.   

The intelligent transport system (ITS) has proved to be an effective tool in managing urban traffic and reducing congestion. The project has supported the use of ITS in the urban traffic and public transport command centers, which play a central role in keeping the city and its transport running smoothly.

Equipped with state-of-the-art ITS technologies, the Suzhou Public Transport Command Center provides a real-time, integrated view of the city's bus transportation network composed of 370 bus routes and 4,680 buses carrying a daily passenger volume of 1.5 million. The center performs real-time monitoring, scheduling, route and dispatch management with the goals of improving the accessibility and reliability of bus service. 

The center collects information through onboard devices such as POS machines and video surveillance cameras.  When a passenger swaps an IC card on the POS machine to pay for the ride, the information is transmitted to the command center. Through video cameras in the buses and at bus stops, operators monitor passenger flows and adjust bus scheduling, frequency and speed accordingly.

The smart monitoring system at the Chengdu Intelligent Transport Command Center monitors and regulates traffic flows around the city.  With real-time information, operators can adjust traffic flows and reduce congestion across the road network. The information is also displayed on more than 200 LED guidance screens on roads to enable drivers to choose the best routes and dodge traffic jams.

The traffic management centers partner with digital mapping companies such as Gaode and Baidu to share information on traffic conditions and congestions. The real-time information is reflected on Gaode and Baidu maps to help users plan their journey. The center can also detect traffic accidents and take actions quickly to prevent road congestion.

The new Harbin Public Transport Command Center is expected to monitor the 208 bus routes, nearly 6,000 buses and all the bus stops around the city when it goes into operation later this year.  In addition, surveillance cameras installed at major taxi stands and bus stops help regulate taxi operations and keep people from parking at bus stops. 

Fast, convenient, reliable and comfortable bus services can attract more people to public transport. Bus priority has been introduced in all three cities. Bus-only lanes have reached 225, 357 and 110 kilometers in Suzhou, Chengdu and Harbin respectively.  Suzhou has also installed traffic signals that give left-turning buses priority at some road intersections. “The signal gives the bus a 10-second head start over other vehicles,” said Ai Jixiang, a deputy leader of the city’s traffic police detachment.

Clean-energy buses fueled by gas and electricity are replacing old diesel-fueled vehicles, with their share steadily increasing in the bus fleets of the three cities. The air-conditioned new buses not only carry more passengers but make rides more comfortable. The three cities are also offering alternative forms of bus services such as bus rapid transit (BRT) and express buses which enable people to travel more quickly.

Electronic bus stop boards and mobile apps make bus services more convenient.  Known as the “Ice City,” Harbin is very cold in winter, where temperatures can reach 30 degrees below zero with heavy snow. “People will be able to find the location and arrival time of a bus through an app from home, so that they can make better travel plans on cold and snowy days,” said Zhao Rui, an official from the Harbin Transport Bureau.

Data-backed solutions help optimize public transport system

The project also supported studies to gain a better understanding of travel demand and develop transport policy options and solutions.  In Suzhou, the researchers looked at differentiated parking pricing and congestion charges as potential ways to ease traffic pressure in the old town.

In Chengdu, systems and tools were developed for informed policymaking, including a decision aid system that contains public transport information such as bus routes, stops, depots and priority lanes, as well as passenger flow data and forecasts to support public transit optimization, and a road traffic index system that gives a view of live traffic conditions and congestion in the road network and builds up a complete database over time.

In Harbin, solutions were developed for solving specific congestion problems. The roundabout at the Dynamics Square used to be a congestion hotspot, with pedestrians and vehicles competing for road. Following the recommendations made by the study, the roundabout was changed into an intersection; lane assignment was used to separate turning vehicles from through traffic, and pedestrian signals were installed for people to cross the street safely. “The efficiency at the intersection is estimated to have increased at least by 20%,” said Zhao Wei, a researcher from the Tianjin Municipal Engineering Design Institute, who led the study.

These studies have laid the groundwork for future improvement of the public transport system.  “On the basis of surveys and analytics, we have developed a public transport network survey database, a public transport facilities GIS database, and an integrated evaluation index system for Harbin,” said You Li, a researcher from the Shenzhen Urban Transport Planning and Design Research Center and a team leader of the study.

With the lessons learned from the GEF project, Harbin is implementing an investment project to develop a smart public transport system in cold weather financed by a World Bank loan of US$100 million. “From a relatively weak basis, Harbin has made a leap forward in informatization through implementation of these two projects,” said Zhao Rui of the Harbin Transport Bureau.

As service improves, more and more people take public transport instead of driving their own cars. “I used to drive my kid to school. Now the buses are very convenient. It is more convenient and faster to take my kid to school and go to work by bus,” said Zhang Yuan, a resident of Harbin. She was echoed by her friend Li Chunpeng. “I take the bus to work every day. So do my relatives and friends. The new buses are very comfortable, and warm in winter,” said Li.

Public transport not only saves travel time but also reduces greenhouse gases and local air pollutant emissions. “Though the total carbon emissions are still on a rising trend, the three cities have already achieved some emission reduction results compared with the business-as-usual scenario. Reductions have reached 0.95, 1.53 and 0.98 million tons in Suzhou, Chengdu and Harbin respectively,” said Liao Kai, a researcher of the China Academy of Transport Science, who tracked emissions in the three pilot cities for the past four years.

Several international workshops were organized to share views and experience in congestion and carbon emission reduction, including the lessons learned from the project, as part of the TransForm, a knowledge platform jointly developed by the Ministry of Transport and the World Bank to learn and disseminate China’s experience and good practices in transport development and transformation.