In the Chinese language transportation, together with clothing, food, and housing, are basic human needs expressed concisely as “Yi Shi Zhu Xing” (____). The increasing geographic scale and structural complexity of contemporary economic and social activities require fast, safe, reliable, comfortable, and cost-effective transportation. Therefore, transportation development usually goes hand-in-hand with economic development, urban growth, and quality of life improvement. Since 1978, when the Chinese government under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping launched the market-oriented economic reform, China’s transportation infrastructure and service has been developing at an astonishing pace. The achievements over the last four decades have been truly remarkable, as manifested by a modernized national transportation system that includes many new, world-class subsystems. Those of us who have witnessed this whole period of dramatic changes must remember how under-developed the transportation system was. Here are some telling facts: coal-burning steam engines were yet to be fully replaced by internal combustion engines for passenger trains, which travelled at an average speed of below 50 kilometres per hour and were often extremely crowded; civil aviation served only a small number of major cities, and the service was exclusively for the elites – high-rank governmental officials and high-level professionals; the expressway did not exist; a bicycle was a luxury household possession, whereas the private automobile was a foreign concept.
Chia-Lin Chen, Haixiao Pan, Qing Shen and James Jixian Wang
Since the economic reform and opening-up policy initiated in 1978, changes brought about by a series of consecutive reforms in Chinese society are unparalleled in human history. In this “post-Mao era”, the urbanisation process accelerated dramatically as “a policy exploitive of the rural sector” (Chan, 1994: 97) under the Mao regime had shifted to an urban development policy that “is not simply subordinated to industrialization policy…” and “should be treated as an inevitable process of modern development…” (Chan, 1994: 104). The rate of urbanisation, which denotes the proportion of the population living in urban areas, was merely 10.6 per cent in 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was founded. Over the course of the next thirty years, this proportion rose modestly to 17.9 per cent, whereas, since then, urbanisation has rocketed, with a further steep rise occurring soon after China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. In 1999, the rate of urbanisation was 30.89 per cent, a strong growth of 13 per cent over 21 years. In less than 18 years, the rate of urbanisation in 2017 had risen to 58.52 per cent, a 28 percent increase, doubling the growth between 1978 and 1999 (NBSC, 1999 and 2018). Transport, either as a means to meet development needs or by itself as an economic growth strategy, has played an indispensable role in contributing to rapid urbanisation, and vice versa. The aphorism of the British economist Colin Clark (Clark, 1958) – “transport is maker and breaker of cities” – proves to be insightful to depict the interactive relationship between transport and urbanisation through a series of developmental crises and technological breakthroughs. For Chinese cities, the pattern of interaction between urbanization and transport is much more complicated than that of most advanced economies, where development of the transport infrastructure took a fairly long period of time to reach its present state. Chinese cities have been a major arena for experiments; from large-scale motorisation to public transit development, from state-led rail transit development to spawning entrepreneur-driven business ideas (such as dockless bike-sharing systems and online ride-hailing systems), all concurring and overlapping in a relatively short time and leading to dramatic urban transformation with considerable challenges for sustainabl development in contemporary China. A recently-published book, Unsustainable Transport and Transition in China by Loo (2018), specifically addresses these challenges.