In the last decade, China’s fast-paced urbanization and construction boom has made a visible impact on its urban and rural landscapes. Cities have overtaken agricultural lands and greenfields. A monotony of residential slabs and a steady competition for uniquely shaped, ever-soaring towers perpetually remake skylines in every city.
Map of China’s interstate expressway system (blue indicates completed sections, and red indicates those under construction). Source: newgeography
Less visible, but just as dramatic, is the country’s highway expansion. In 2011, China’s intercity motorway system surpassed that of the United States to become the longest in the world. Remarkably, most of this 53,000-mile network has been built in the last 10 years. And it is ahead of schedule — the Chinese government has already met its goal for 2020. By comparison, the 57,000-mile U.S. highway system was largely built over the course of 30 years.
This rapid highway roll-out has enabled the expansion of cities and powered economic growth. It has also brought development to remote areas and increased the mobility of the country’s migrant workers. Of course, road infrastructure always comes with environmental degradation, increased traffic and pollution.
Construction of an interstate expressway over villages in Yunnan Province, China (above and below). Source: Skyscrapercity
On a recent trip through Yunnan, it was not uncommon to see entire mountainsides blasted away just to create a narrow perch for a new four-lane road. The vision of an endless thread of highway splitting the landscape no longer belongs just to the U.S. or Gernany. The Chinese versions take the uncompromisingly straight axis of high-speed travel to laser-like extremes. Topography is conquered by bride-to-tunnel-to-bridge sequences. A highway coming out of the mountains to cross agricultural plains floats on towering columns for miles, gradually descending to the villages on the valley floor.
Ho Chi Minh City has a soundtrack: on any corner, one is surrounded by the throbbing din of hundreds of sputtering engines and chatting horns. As rivers of motorbikes sweep down every road, their echoing sounds have become the pulse of the city.
Noise pollution is not the only nuisance caused by motorbikes. They cause more injurious accidents, their two-stroke engines and unfiltered exhaust contribute more to air pollution, and their numbers and ability to fill any gap in the road contribute to constant, hectic congestion. Crossing the street is famously difficult in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). (The best advice to tourists is to “just go” and trust that traffic will adjust around you.) Sidewalks are often blocked by parked motorbikes, and drivers more than occasionally use the sidewalks as a traffic lanes. Pedestrians are smart to look both ways before leaving a doorway.
In 2005, HCMC had a total of three million registered motorbikes, or about 412 vehicles per 1000 people (Duc, Le Anh). As its populations continues to grow — an expected 10m by 2020 — so will the tides of scooters.
Since the late 1980’s, HCMC has gone through a process of rapid urbanization due to industrialization, economic liberalization and foreign investment. The city is booming, but there has been a comparative lack of investment in infrastructure, especially public transportation and alternative traffic networks. The bus systems are fractured (no single lines extend across the city), unreliable, and slow due to traffic congestion. Consequently, motorbikes have become the vehicle of choice: a cheap, fast, flexible, door-to-door option.
Motorbikes are essential for HCMC’s residents. They transport families, animals, and sometimes unimaginable cargo. However, the most interesting urban phenomenon is that the bikes have become a form of social space. At night, parks and open spaces fill with teens and young adults on their scooters. Friends gather in lines and circles, each atop their seats, smoking and eating the city’s famous street food. Some are even fully reclined on the long, padded seats. As new friends join the group, the wheeled seating easily adjusts. The two-person capability of the bike seat is also an ideal perch for young lovers to get (very) close. It is imaginable that a local Saigonese can have a night out without ever getting off his or her perch.
As HCMC follows a trajectory towards becoming a global city, politicians, planners, and policy makers will need to solve the urgent transportation issues. However, the use of motorbikes has become so embedded in Vietnam’s culture that it will take more than transportation improvements and policies to address this problem.
In a recent post, I included some pictures of Shenzhen in 1980 (similar to the one above), just a few years after the establishment of the Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Thirty years later, these images of a car-free fishing village have been erased by a towering metropolis.
During a recent visit to Zhuhai, I found an area where a similar anachronistic scene still exists. On the western edge of the city, across the river from Macao, a former fishing and trading village now sits quietly behind construction walls — a ghost-town swept up by development. Large tracts of the settlement have already been razed. Intact blocks have been colonized by tropical house plants. Other streets bustle, only with demolition workers.
Nonetheless, there is also a sign of resistance. Someone has their laundry out to dry. An old woman peers at us from a dark window. Sprinkled along streets of mostly bricked-in homes, some inhabitants refuse to leave. It is unclear what the future of this site will be.
Many villages in southern China, swallowed by urban sprawl, develop organically as villages in the city (VICs). VICs are vital to migrant laborers in need of cheap housing, but are often unimaginably dense and without proper infrastructure. But as lessons are learned by urban planners, urban villages like those in Zhuhai are being more carefully integrated into the city plan. Unfortunately, this is often done to the benefit of developers more than the villagers or migrants.