China’s Car-Free Oasis

In Guangzhou, a city of 12 million, high-speed urban development goes green


| January-February 2010



Car Free China

image by Robert Harding World Imagery / Corbis

Models of sustainable transportation and largely car-free urban development are operating without fanfare in Guangzhou, the capital of China’s southern Guangdong Province. The most successful examples in this city of 12 mil-lion share important common characteristics—high density, extremely low car ownership and usage, attractive streetscapes, blocks broken up into pedestrianized walkways and streets, and an overwhelming reliance on walking, cycling, and public transport—and are visible in several parts of the city, including its historic core, socialist-era housing areas, urban villages, and new developments.

Guangzhou’s historic core, continuously inhabited for 2,200 years, is typified by the Xiguan area of Liwan District, which today faces pressure for redevelopment. Office, retail, and residential towers sprout wherever there is space, but despite the frenetic development, cars account for less than 1 percent of trips in Xiguan. One reason car use is so low is the lack of space for driving and parking. Of the estimated 274 street segments and alleys in one area of Xiguan, fewer than a dozen are accessible to cars. The rest constitute a dense and intricate network of pedestrian alleyways rich in cultural, commercial, architectural, and social features.

In the Guangyuan New Village, which was first built up in the 1980s, the Jingtai Jie Street Committee has, together with residents, transformed the area into one of the most livable parts of the city. In the past couple of years, the committee has installed high curbs to prevent illegal parking and restricted car parking, narrowed roads and intersections, widened walkways and built several parks, and allowed cycle rickshaws to replace motorcycle taxis.

Another car-free urban oasis is in the West Jiangnan area of Haizhu District, where there is an extensive pedestrian- and bicycle-only network. The inhabitants, mostly Cantonese, enjoy their daily routines in clean and quiet neighborhoods, free of the stress, hazards, and noise of cars and trucks.

Guangzhou’s 138 “urban villages” are overbuilt, extremely dense areas of informal housing formed when farmland surrounding an agricultural village was converted to urban use and absorbed into the expanding city. Housing conditions are crowded and often unpleasant, but the villages nevertheless have some positive characteristics. Car ownership is virtually nonexistent, because cars cannot enter the narrow streets. And since a citywide ban on motorcycles came into effect in January 2007, the street life in the labyrinthine alleyways has become even more vibrant.

Most people meet their needs within walking distance, and the presence of the urban villages even in the city center provides proximity to formal employment. Bicycles are also an important transport mode in these areas. For longer distance trips, people rely on buses. Two dozen urban villages line Guangzhou’s 14-mile bus rapid transit (BRT) corridor (which is currently under construction), with village residents forming the bulk of the system’s passenger base.