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Guangzhou’s ‘Hot’ Story: A Roadmap for Cities

Neal Peirce / Jul 12 2012

For Release Sunday, July 8, 2012
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceGUANGZHOU, China — This is a “hot” world city — and more than by weather. From old “Canton,” a port and backwater of fish farms scattered across the Pearl River Delta, Guangzhou has transformed itself since the 1980s into a top global manufacturer.

At 15 million population, Guangzhou has more people than New York City. It’s building spectacular “sculptured” center city high rises (including the Canton Tower, briefly the world’s highest structure). It turns out an extraordinary array of goods for world markets, from T-shirts to automobiles, toys to petrochemicals. Current product lines run from batteries to the “designed in California” iPhones that dominate the global market for mobile devices.

Guangzhou and the delta are served by flashy new high-speed trains and high-class air service. And the city proper has implemented a “bus rapid transit” (BRT) system to move hundreds of thousands of passengers through its downtown, quickly and efficiently — a setup that’s arguably state of the art.

The need for high grade services is undeniable. In the last five years, the Guangzhou-Pearl River Delta economy has doubled in size. In 2003 it passed Hong Kong, the original wonder Asian factory for the world. In 2007 its economy passed that of Taiwan. It is now half that of all of Korea.

On the economic side, there’s been a serious price to pay for all the breakneck speed of development: horrendous roadway congestion and seriously polluted air.

And there’s a human cost, reminiscent of the early days of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and America. Thousands of workers, many imported from distant rural Chinese towns to work in regimented private-sector owned factories, find themselves living under grim working conditions. I was shocked to hear one first-generation factory worker describe his working year: 364 days, only New Year’s as a holiday.

For outsiders, it’s hard to figure how long it will be before a worker rebellion — or perhaps negative publicity — will undercut the deep exploitation. It’s true that the region’s long-range goal is higher-value (and less polluting) manufacturing — as Japan and Korea, and Hong Kong, have achieved. But the economic incentive for lowest-cost manufacturing is tough to break.

And learning can occur, as the bus rapid transit system shows. On an early (1979) trip of American planners to China, I heard Chinese officials being urged to save the country’s bike culture, and foster public transportation, because the nation’s vast millions in private cars would be a disaster. China, of course, didn’t listen, discouraging bikes and pouring money into roadways. The net result: hideous gridlock and immense roadway demand (Beijing, famously, now has six ring roads). Belatedly, public investment has begun to shift to high-speed rail and city subway systems — of which China now plans literally dozens more.

In Guangzhou, Zhongshan Avenue — a key artery through the city and one of the world’s busiest bus corridors — was a special nightmare of buses, cars, trucks jockeying for space, the whole moving tortuously slowly. So the U.S.-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) approached the mayor and suggested reconstructing the center of Zhongshan Avenue for buses only. Regular traffic would be relegated to the sides (still three lanes each way).

Guangzhou’s mayor, justifiably suspicious, became convinced after ITDP took him to Sao Paulo to see a BRT system in efficient operation. Soon afterward, construction began on Zhongshan Avenue. Hell quickly broke loose, however, as riders endured heavy rains and baking heat because shelters were temporarily removed. Local media called it a terrible boondoggle.

Yet the mayor was adamant, construction went forward, and the new BRT lanes opened — one each way and, importantly, including an extra pullover lane in each direction at the designated station stops. The result: no buses delayed by others loading or unloading passengers. In fact, passengers pay their fares to enter the stations and then know, by number and destination, precisely where to stand for the next bus as it swoops into its designated pullover location.

Net result, says Karl Fjellstrom, ITDP’s man on the scene: some 850,000 BRT passengers each day. The buses continue, at the end of their 14-mile exclusive right-of-way, into neighborhoods for passengers’ convenience (and fewer transfers).

Overall traffic congestion has been dramatically reduced, with each Guangzhou BRT station handling as many as 300 buses an hour. Rental bicycles are located at the key city stops. The bus stations have roofs so passengers don’t need to wait in the rain.

Fjellstrom believes BRT systems — which can be built at a fraction of the cost, at a fraction of the time — easily trump the case for subways. One doesn’t need to buy that argument completely to agree that from now on, in China, the U.S. and elsewhere, BRT systems shouldn’t be seen as outlyers but one significant way to resolve cities’ 21st century transportation crises.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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  1. Richard Wakeford
    Posted July 13, 2012 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Just back from China again myself, after a two year break, and what struck me in Beijing, Shanghai and Suzhou was the electric bike phenomenon. The problem with cars is where to park them. But bikes get left everywhere, much closer to the store or cafe you want. The net result: even more downtown vibrancy. And imagine this, they cost just $300.

  2. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted July 13, 2012 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    BRT systems can be more effective if they y=use long buses.

    I also think trams can be a part of urban transport solution in cities.
    France Commits to Tramways, A Possible Model for the Future of Urban Rail
    Above article also mentions the innovative Mettis system in the City of Metz ” so much like a tramway that it will be hard to differentiate its vehicles and alignment from that of a rail service.”
    Metz is a city with a fabulous history with a modern mindset:

  3. Howard Spodek
    Posted July 13, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Please write an article on ITDP. I study Ahmedabad, India, where a BRT system has also been introduced after ITDP brought the idea. First I had heard of them. Now I hear about them all the way from the original homes in Bogota and Curitiba to Guangzhou. Can you write a little more about them. Thanks.

  4. Neal Peirce
    Posted July 13, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the good idea for a column on ITDP. I do plan to make it a major feature in a global round-up on ITDP in the foreseeable future.

  5. Jason Bezis
    Posted July 13, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    When I visited China in 2011, the policy/practice of motorized vehicles always having the right-of-way surprised and frightened me. It is scary to be a pedestrian in China crossing intersections. Even right-vehicles will not stop for pedestrians — the pedestrian will have a “walk” signal and will start to cross when right-turning vehicles speed through the turns. When you finish walking across the motorized-vehicle section of the street, beware also of the bicycle lane. Does anyone know why China did not develop a strict policy 30 years ago that pedestrians should have the right-of-way, especially in a crosswalk at a signalized intersection? (Maybe it was also dangerous to cross streets back then, too, because of the speeding mass of bicycles?) The car most definitely is “king” in China today. Same goes for Hong Kong, too – I don’t know if it was different pre-1997 during the British era. In contrast, in Singapore, pedestrians do have the right-of-way. Vehicles will stop when pedestrians walk across the street at intersections when “walk” signals are illuminated. If China had adopted the Singapore policy, it would be a much safer country for pedestrians.

  6. Posted July 14, 2012 at 4:03 am | Permalink

    The experience of Guangzhou is a lesson to New Delhi where bus rapid transit simply failed whereas the Metro system is very successful. But despite the metro success, the modal split is still not in favour of public transport. With more than 2 million cars for 16 million people and every day 500 cars being added, the traffic movement is far from satisfactory.–

    Additional explanation: The link explains the background. So far Delhi’s transit agencies are still struggling to implement bus rapid transit. However, Delhi Metro (MRTS) is very successful with daily ridership touching 2 million. The Master Plan for Delhi-2021 has envisaged the metro corridors with high intensive development zone to ensure integration of land use and transport. he biggest challenge for city planners is to ensure rapid and efficient public transport and discourage personal vehicles. — R.Srinivas, Town and Country Planner, Head, Metropolitan & Union Territories Division, Town & Country Planning Organization, Gov’t of India, New Delhi

  7. Jim Coyle
    Posted July 18, 2012 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    Having visited there in August 2010, I agree with the responders comments. Almost an impossible traffic situation. hopefully, the new bus system will be maintained.

  8. David
    Posted July 28, 2012 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    @Neal Peirce: small point: I the extra lanes at the stations are often referred to as ‘overtaking’ lanes, not ‘pullover’ lanes; the main bus lane being alongside the station (such that in lower volume situations, the bus can directly ‘pull into the station’ like a train, staying essentially parallel to the platform the whole time), and the overtaking lane being next to that.

    ‘Pullover’ implies moving to the side of the road (like being pulled-over by the police), and could make the reader think it means the lane alongside the station; that is, ‘pulling over to the station’, like a typical bus pulls up to the curb (in which case it would not be an ‘extra’ lane). ‘Overtaking’ lanes simply means a bus can pass another bus, like a passing lane on a standard road. Depending on the BRT station configuration (for R-door, or L-door, buses), the ‘overtaking’ lane may be to the left or the right, respectively, of the (alighting/boarding) bus lane.

    @Jason Bezis: My suspicion is that China doesn’t have a pedestrian priority rule (vs. R-turning vehicles) because of a combination of long-held and deep cultural beliefs surrounding hierarchies of power (the weak defers to the strong), combined with the ‘fluidity’ (or ‘informality’) of the traditional street environment (mixed traffic modes, and many non-mobility uses) that carries into today. There’s also perhaps a different sense of ‘law’ than in the west; order (hierarchy?) and the network / character of relationships between people is more important than law narrowly defined. [This from an extremely limited understanding of Fei Xaiotong’s Xiangtu Zhongguo]. This stands in stark contrast to the supposedly ‘Christian’ underpinnings of western society, e.g., Christ on the meek inheriting the earth, or Rawl’s theory of justice [if I recall correctly].

    The western visitor to China would be advised to understand the zebra stripe crossing (‘ba ma xian’) as a suggestion as to where the pedestrian _should_ cross, not as an indication of protection of the law when crossing. I suspect that until pedestrians only cross at the ba ma xian, (and probably even then with traffic signals), cars will not automatically stop for them. Be forewarned.