New study examines China’s barriers to sustainable urban transport
China’s rapid urbanization has presented local transport authorities with a range of challenges to delivering quality public transport services. Institutional fragmentation and poor governance in particular have posed significant barriers to making sustainable solutions a reality. When it comes to urban transport in China, responsibilities are often ambiguously divided between different government agencies, and misaligned goals and conflicting policies lead to inefficient resource allocation among departments. As a result, public transport quality has suffered, car ownership has increased, public funding is used in ineffective ways, and urban and transport planning have become disconnected from one another.
Addressing the growing demand for a shift in institutional structure, WRI China and EMBARQ recently published Shaping up Sustainable Transport Authorities in Chinese Cities, a working paper that provides a deepened understanding of why existing structures fail to deliver sustainable transport policies. Furthermore, the working paper draws on in depth case studies of Chinese cities to generate a set of practical recommendations for reform.
Recommendations for designing a new institutional paradigm
At the strategic level, the paper recommends aligning the responsibilities of new urban transport institutions with cities’ visions for low-carbon urban transport development. Centralizing transport management should support a city's overall transport development plans and echo its long-term mobility strategies.
Addressing governmental organization, the paper emphasizes the need for inter-departmental coordination to produce comprehensive strategies, even if institutional reform does not produce a single, centralized transport management agency.
Additionally, accountability at both the policy design and implementation levels is key to producing results. In the past, proposals to integrate multiple transport functions have raised concerns about potential abuses of power. Accountability measures—coupled with greater transparency and a long-term transition to bottom-up public participation—can avoid potential abuses of power and help local governments better respond to the needs of citizens.
The research also underscores the importance of financial independence for empowering transport authorities to carry out their new responsibilities effectively. Possible new funding sources such as municipal bonds, authorized fees or taxes, land value capture, and investments through public-private partnerships can help cities in financial distress.
Lastly, proactively seeking out potential talented employees, building capacity, and efficiently managing existing resources are equally critical to building an effective urban transport authority. An open, transparent incentive structure will help transport authorities attract and retain talent. The working paper also suggests collaboration and information sharing among research institutes and governmental agencies.
Equipping city leaders with a framework for change
The design and implementation of timely, effective sustainable transport solutions in many Chinese cities is often obstructed by institutional fragmentation. This working paper sets the stage for systematically examining the institutional setup of the urban transport sector.
According to Lulu Xue, research analyst for WRI China and co-author of the paper:
“The reason that some urban transport policies or projects fail to meet the expected goals can be partly attributable to the lack of understanding of a country’s institutional labyrinth. As much as transport policies are designed, implemented and evaluated by municipal governments of conflicted interests, institutional setup invariably play an important role. Through this research, we would like to provide municipal governments, national policy makers, and like-minded NGOs a thorough assessment of the existing barriers and offer an opportunity to discuss possible solutions.”
City governments struggling to keep up with China’s rapid urbanization have faced structural challenges to meeting the growing urban population’s mobility needs. Institutional reform can address these bureaucratic obstacles and help Chinese cities make sustainable transport a reality.
About EMBARQ at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities
EMBARQ, Sustainable Urban Mobility by WRI, catalyzes and helps implement environmentally, socially, and financially sustainable urban mobility solutions to improve quality of life in cities.