Is China's traffic congestion as contagious as Covid-19?

As the first coronavirus cases were being reported in Europe and the America's, the Chinese were already talking of a post-corona era. Chinese factories were slowly reopening as travel restrictions lifted. Although life was still far from back to normal, the first traffic jams were already being reported: Baidu, China's 'Google', reported in late March that several Chinese cities were even more congested than the previous year. Had the Chinese massively switched from public transport to cars? Should we soon expect the same situation in other countries? Should we look East to see our future reality?

Chinese lockdown differed from lockdowns elsewhere

The situation is seemingly more complicated. China's lockdown was arranged much differently than the e.g. the Netherlands' intelligent lockdown. The Netherlands instituted one policy for the entire country, while China has different measures for different regions. When the pandemic broke out in Wuhan and its surroundings, the authorities harshly locked people up in their homes. Meanwhile, other major Chinese cities, like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, were much less affected, even undergoing less stringent lockdowns than the Netherlands. Schools, universities, bars and cinemas in those Chinese cities were closed, but restaurants and many office buildings remained open. Moreover, the 1.5-meter social distancing rule played virtually no role, not even on public transport.

Coronavirus measures in China

The Chinese were already accustomed to wearing masks, owing their history of infectious diseases and highly polluted air (as well Chinese women's desire to not to wear make-up in public unless they feel like it). Public transport passengers’ temperatures were taken at train stations, in metros and even at larger bus stations. Further, everyone was required to have a corona-app on their phones to track virus cases. If a risk of infection was identified somewhere, everyone there was immediately quarantined until all had been tested. Moreover, people residing in big cities often live in walled and guarded residential compounds (xiaoqu), consisting of several hundred families, which can be quickly locked down when needed. With such measures in place, most Chinese people were seemingly willing to return to life as usual, insofar as the coronavirus crisis had even impacted their daily lives. In short, a very different streetscape, and solutions far different from those in the Netherlands.

Traffic in Wuhan in late April 2020
©ANP-Hollandse Hoogte
Traffic in Wuhan in late April 2020

Suspended (toll) policy in China possibly caused extra congestion

The Chinese have been purchasing cars in huge numbers over the past decade: car ownership rates increased from 34 per 1,000 inhabitants in 2009 to 181 per 1,000 inhabitants in 2019. For comparison: the rate in the USA was ten times as high in 1960. China's car ownership rates remain far below High Income Country levels. China's car-producing regions are currently striving to boost car sales in order to preserve local jobs; consequently, car use in these regions will likely continue to increase, unrelated to the corona crisis. To try to somewhat stem the growth of car ownership, large Chinese cities instituted restrictive quota or pricing policies. In Beijing, people are only allowed to drive their cars at certain times of the week, depending on their license plate numbers ─ although, to circumvent this, wealthier Chinese simply buy several cars, ensuring they can always stay on the road. In Hangzhou ─ a city near Shanghai with millions of inhabitants ─ people must pay hefty tolls to use the highways ringing the city, and consequently they drive less than they would like to. These restrictive measures were removed at the height of the coronavirus crisis. In Hangzhou, for example, highway congestion is largely caused by trucks, which had previously paid the highest tolls. On May 6th these tolls were reinstated, and now time will tell whether this post-coronavirus peak in road congestion was temporary.

In Chinese cities, equal use of Public Transport and cars

Separate from all this, it may well be that the coronavirus crisis was behind some of this road congestion. Did the Chinese suddenly massively switch from public transport to cars? Here, too, the reality is more complex. Examining public transport transaction data from Shenzhen, a megacity in southern China, we see that public transport use dipped during Chinese New Year and the subsequent lockdown, before gradually returning to normal levels. In late March public transport use was only about 60% of 2019 levels, however. According to a survey Baidu conducted among students and workers in late March, the Chinese planned to travel more frequently by car than prior to the crisis. Public transport use could therefore remain below previous levels for an extended period of time. Moreover, a limited shift from public transport to cars would have far greater consequences in China than in the Netherlands. According to Deloitte, in 2018 the share of public transport trips in Shenzhen was equal to car trips (both at 22%; the majority of other trips were by foot). If 10% of Chinese public transport users shunned public transport, the number of car users would also increase by 10%. In the Netherlands, the number of car trips is some 7 times greater than public transport trips: a 10% decrease in Dutch public transport use would result in a 1.5% increase in car use. Consequently, should the Chinese shun public transport, the consequences for traffic congestion would be far graver than if the Dutch did the same. In countries with an even smaller share of trips by Public Transport, the consequences of social distancing on PT-use, and a subsequent shift to car use, would be even smaller.

The Dutch and the Chinese will likely continue to cycle more

There is, finally, also some good news coming out of China. In recent years China's G4 (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan) expended great effort to improve their cycling infrastructures, and bicycle use has seemingly significantly increased post-corona crisis. Use of shared (electric) bikes in China’s major cities is a good indicator of total bicycle use, as shared bikes are now more popular than privately owned bikes. Data from HelloBike, China's largest bike-sharing provider, revealed that since the lockdown, use of bike sharing services, which was already extensive, increased by one-quarter to two-thirds in cities across China. Consequently, public transport users looking for post-corona transport alternatives may well have partly shifted to bikes instead of cars. But here, too, there are major differences between China and the Netherlands, and this trend cannot simply be transferred to the Dutch context. A recent Dutch survey also found that the Dutch planned to cycle more post-corona. This might be an idea for other countries.

Authors: Jan Jelle Witte, Amalia Huang, Jan Francke, Henk Stipdonk


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