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Greening the Chinese City: Automobiles Vs. the Rest

Government intends one thing, but consumers want cars

Weighing the transportation choices facing China, Senior Lecturer at MIT Frederick Salvucci describes the pernicious long-term effects of an automobile culture. (4 min., 15 sec.)

Weighing the transportation choices facing China, Senior Lecturer at MIT Frederick Salvucci describes the pernicious long-term effects of an automobile culture. (4 min., 15 sec.)

Government intends one thing, but consumers want cars

NEW YORK, May 4, 2011- "Every contradictory trend is happening at once in China," said James Fallows.

In other words, China, one of the world's biggest producers of greenhouse gases, is re-positioning itself at the forefront of sustainability as its government allocates hefty public investments towards redesigned airports and energy-efficient public transportation, including a high-speed rail network that should facilitate inter- and intra-city mobility.

Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic, made his observation in an Asia Society panel discussion on the sustainability of China's transportation strategy. Moderated by New Yorker magazine Staff Writer David Owen, the panel also included Regine Weston, Principal at Arup, Inkai Mu, Principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, Frederick Salvucci, Senior Lecturer at MIT and Wu Jiang, prominent Chinese architect, urban planner, and Vice President of Tongji University.

While China's government has committed to "green transportation," the panelists agreed that an inherent challenge to that ambition isn't technical so much as it is political and cultural. The market for alternative energy vehicles like electric bicycles is driven more by government command than consumer demand; Chinese consumers, particularly the burgeoning middle class, opt to buy a car as soon as they can afford to, because they believe quality of life is defined by luxury cars and homes. Thus a booming market for automobiles exists in tandem with breakneck economic growth.

As Mu pointed out, ironically, Shanghai has one of the largest auto shows in the world. Salvucci emphasized that automobiles, "an attractive trap," are an unsustainable option that need to be edged out for the sake of China's long-term growth and development.

Reported by Diana Choi