A Trip To China...

I recently traveled to China for two weeks both to visit a company we are invested in and also to visit a publisher who has translated into Chinese my father’s book on life as a newspaper reporter in China in the 1930’s (Haldore Hanson, Humane Endeavour, Farrar Rinehart, 1939).

No matter how often I visit China I am always amazed at the changes. Here are four things I noticed this time.

1. Infrastructure on steroids. The best way to travel today in China is on their high speed rail network (“Gao Tie”). China has 12,000 miles of high speed rail and is planning on building another 10,000 by 2025. America is still working on its first mile!

The high speed trains are fast (anywhere from 120 mph to 180 mph), terribly comfortable, to-the-minute punctual and they allow you to see the countryside, something air travel doesn’t.

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China continues to aggressively urbanize. Blocks of apartment buildings are everywhere (see picture) and they don’t build just one tower, they build maybe 25 towers together, housing upwards of 10,000 people. The issue of how many apartments are bought on speculation and are held empty now was difficult to assess from a fast moving train, however.

 2. The consumer economy. A criticism of China has always been they won’t develop an internet economy because they have no credit rating system, no credit cards and no delivery infrastructure. Well China does it China’s way. Alibaba and Tencent have developed sophisticated non-bank payment systems similar to our debit cards. Everyone pays for nearly everything with their cell phones. Credit cards are way behind. In addition China has cobbled together a sophisticated delivery system using whatever works - from motorcycles to small vans. The market economy with Chinese Characteristics!

3. The sharing economy is all the buzz. China’s State run press agency Xinhua says there are four great new inventions in China today: mobile payments, e-commerce, high speed rail and bike sharing. The Chinese are enthusiastic adapters of new technology and Didi Chuxing, their Uber ride sharing equivalent, is an enormous success. Now bike sharing is taking off (see photo). The Chinese have added a unique twist. You use your cell phone to unlock and rent a bike ($0.16 a half hour) but then you leave the bike wherever you want – no need for docking stations. You see large numbers of bikes in high traffic areas and also lone bikes in quiet neighborhoods. Wherever you are, just pick up a bike, use it and then leave it for the next person. Sometimes it is a bit of a mess on the street, but it sure is convenient.

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4. Pollution. This is the bugaboo of China’s major cities. The country is maybe like Chicago 100 years ago where making money was Priority #1. Cleaning up the environment came later. The picture above is one I took of an all too typical Beijing day from “Coal Hill” looking towards the Forbidden City.

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In the next five years as China’s middle class gets wealthier and more demanding, the government will be pressured to work harder on the environment. Don’t expect improvements in human rights but the environment is something the government can slowly but surely deliver.

China may still stumble or implode as some predict but for now it is still the World’s miracle economy. 

Infrastructure On The Cheap(er)...

There are not too many cities that can build expensive subways or other mass transit systems today. China may be the exception but the rest of the urban world is stuck with impossible parking and bumper to bumper rush hour commutes. 

But there are rays of hope. Curitiba the capital of the Southern Brazilian state of Parana is a very progressive place. As early as the 1960s it started designing a fast bus solution that is now being copied by others. On a recent trip to Colombia and Ecuador I saw versions of the Curitiba system in Bogota, Medellin and Quito. 

Curitiba went the ‘modest initiative’ route, closing off some streets to traffic and creating fast bus corridors from the downtown to the suburbs. The buses run very frequently as often as every 90 seconds in rush hour.

In addition, they redesigned the on-off experience (see picture above). They raised the bus station from ground level to a height where you just walk into the bus, like a subway. Also, they put in a pre-boarding pay systems so there is no on board collection of fares. You pay when you enter the station. When the bus arrives people get in and out and the bus is off again within 15 to 20 seconds. There is one ticket price ($0.25 or $0.75 U.S. depending on Bogota, Medellin or Quito) no matter how far you travel. Finally they integrated the city’s trains, trams and gondolas (spectacular views) with the buses so everything runs on one coordinated system.  

The whole thing works but it does require a lot of planning (deciding which streets to close off) and figuring out where the best corridors are. The systems in Bogota, Quito and Medellin are such a success that at rush hour you are packed in like a Tokyo subway. But you get where you are going fast!

Anyone who visits a big city in a developing country has to come away wondering how much pollution all those long haul trucks, buses, motorcycles and cars with no emission controls produce. The Center for Biological Diversity estimates that 15% of all worldwide man made carbon dioxide is caused by transportation.  More rapid transit systems like Curitiba, Quito, Medellin and Bogota, along with (and this is a big if) better emission controls on those pollution belching buses, would go a long way to improving everyone’s lives.