Cities around the world are experiencing a new, rapidly growing epidemic—a traffic epidemic. My hometown, Dallas, Texas, has had increased traffic pressures due to its expanding population and business growth. These problems and attitudes towards traffic are similar to those in China’s large cities. Solutions are created to address traffic problems, but they do not resolve the infrastructural root of these problems. They are merely band-aid solutions on a wound swelling with more transport-seeking passengers.
Citizen attitudes towards traffic may be part of the problem. In previous posts, this blog has discussed the Chinese term “Meibanfa”, roughly translating as “Can’t do anything about it.” It’s often used alongside a shrug, like “Oh well!” During my 2015 field research, this was a common sentiment towards environmental problems among urban residents. Traffic is bad? Nothing I can do about it! This is an understandable sentiment, especially if someone’s job depends on driving or moving through the traffic to get from A to B.
Each year Chinese cities experience massive days-long traffic jams before and after Golden Week, a 7-day holiday that occurs roughly twice a year. Families, enjoying the luxury and freedom of a car, battle through these jams to reach their holiday destinations. However, these kinds of traffic jams are becoming more common, not just around these holidays, and are almost accepted as a normal aspect of transportation. An NPR story described how Chinese truck drivers often experience these traffic jams and now expect them. As a result, the drivers come prepared with pillows and blankets, instant noodles and bread; hawkers in surrounding villages sell food and other products to turn a profit. Here, the “Meibanfa” attitude may be a sense of complacency; no point in getting angry, it’s just the way it is.
In Dallas, too, this has become a sentiment. Roads are constantly being widened to accommodate more traffic from cars. The question seems to be, “How big can we make the road?” rather than, “Should we?” Should we encourage the use of more cars, or is there another, more sustainable and efficient way of transporting citizens?
Bike-share companies have tried to create a solution to traffic congestion and resulting emissions in various global cities by placing bikes in convenient places without specific docking stations. This market seemed to explode, seemingly overnight, but more problems arose. Bikes have been left blocking sidewalks, knocked over in streets, and are increasingly damaged. Bike-share companies in China have gone out of business and the oversupply of bikes has resulted in bike “graveyards.” Many Chinese cities have experiences these problems, as has Dallas. City planners in both regions are struggling to devise a solution to a problem that was once seen as a solution! How could this happen?
The failure of bike-share companies may also be due to a “Meibanfa” sentiment among users. Nothing I can do about it, is also a way to shrug off some personal responsibility. Perhaps users don’t feel ownership of the bikes or a responsibility to lobby for better bike programs. But all the responsibility should not fall on them; people need incentives for these programs to work.
Improved infrastructure can be an incentive and will be key to improving transportation woes. The failing bike-share company epidemic may also be caused by attitudes towards green innovation. So much pressure is placed on creating innovative solutions to climate change problems. For instance, previous posts have discussed smog diamonds and elevated buses. However, little pressure is placed on infrastructural change to accommodate these innovations. The elevated bus did not solve the source of the problem: increasing car ownership. Bike-share companies did not change transportation demand—people still prefer cars for the prestige and convenience or cannot find safe bike paths. These companies also overcompensated with supply, leaving pedestrian paths clogged and the bikes damaged.
Furthermore, cities, both old and new, are no longer accommodating bike users. Chinese city planners have failed to create adequate parking for bikes near subway stations and have not incorporated bike paths into new road networks. In China, rules regarding age restrictions for bikes should have even been considered, since many bike share users are young children, inexperienced with traffic rules.
This negligence to overhaul systemic structures falls into the pattern of Greenwashing. These companies, ideas, and cities want to brand themselves as eco-friendly but are not equipped with structural policies to create green behaviors and systems below a surface level. Understandably, systemic overhaul can be strenuous and pricy, but until city planners get serious about changing city layouts and making green transport accessible and safe for citizens, the movement to overhaul traffic pains may be at a stand still.