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What a Transportation Revolution in China Looks Like

Can China find a fuel alternative for its swelling number of transportation vehicles?


IT'S A GAS: A taxi driver fills up his car with compressed natural gas instead of gasoline, saving money and cutting pollution.
© David Biello

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JINAN, China—A shower of sparks and the crackle of electricity mark the beginning (or end) of a trip on a partially electrified bus in the capital of Shandong Province. "Spring City" lacks a subway system (due to its eponymous artesian springs) and so relies on buses to move its more than four million people across a city that now sprawls some 20 kilometers east to west. And those buses move thanks to everything from ammonia to electricity.

"You just want it to be convenient and cheap," says “Frank,” my host and translator, noting that speed is not the main concern for buses. ("Frank" is his adopted English name, which he chose because he wants to be frank, and I have omitted his last name in case any of his frankness would get him into trouble.)

This city’s fleet of alternative-fuel buses is just one part of China's 863 Program, enacted in March 1986 to stimulate the development of advanced technologies, which in recent years has focused on transportation alternatives. Such transportation alternatives do everything from cutting down on China's burgeoning greenhouse gas pollution to saving lives by preventing fatal traffic accidents. But in a country of more than one billion people, where car ownership is growing by as much as 30 percent per year, how much impact can alternative vehicles and fuels really have?

The recently constructed high-speed train network connects Jinan to even bigger cities such as Beijing or Hangzhou. As a provincial capital, Jinan seems to be a relatively popular destination, and passengers on such trains range from university students to Communist Party apparatchiks bearing bags of tea as gifts. The male travelers (but not the women) light up as soon as they exit the "green smoke-free train," as the automated announcements on board say. And why not smoke when the smog also stings the nose and prompts an incessant cough?

The good news is that the world's largest high-speed train system will restrain the continuing growth of air travel in China. More passengers travel on this new high-speed rail network on a daily basis than on board all flights in the U.S. A second-class seat on a one of these trains will set one back roughly 185 renminbi, or $30, compared with hundreds of dollars for a flight. The bad news is that, given China’s continental size, continued growth in air traffic remains a near certainty, complete with the attendant increase in air pollution.

What is true of trains versus planes is also true of buses versus cars. Articulated buses that provide bus rapid transit snake through town, from outlying suburbs near old military bases to the old city center. Jinan’s diesel hybrid electric bus is not quiet, screeching from stop to stop—and like the bus everywhere, it provides a cross-section of Jinan life, from pensioners to students on the way home from school in matching track suits. There are also all-electric buses, some that just use diesel and others that also burn ammonia. And then there are the long-distance buses that run on liquefied natural gas (LNG).

What such LNG buses lack in power compared with their diesel-burning peers, they make up for in comfort. Because LNG buses cannot carry as many passengers, their seats are more spacious. "You can stretch your legs," explains Frank, who takes such buses to visit a village where he sometimes works.

In fact, as the International Energy Agency notes, natural gas is the cheapest alternative fuel worldwide. As such, there are long-haul trucks burning LNG in China (an alternative some would like to see used more in the U.S.) as well as natural gas buses and taxis. There are even private cars running on compressed natural gas (CNG), thanks to not-officially-legal modifications to the vehicles. (These conversions are apparently common; I saw flyers around Shandong Province advertising such services.)

The trunk of a CNG-burning taxi is a little cramped, thanks to a canister of fuel that can cover a range of almost 200 kilometers. At a cost of 4.40 renminbi per cubic liter, CNG is roughly half the cost of gasoline per kilometer of driving. The downside is a loss of pickup and power—in Beijing, the gasoline-burning taxis are quicker and can carry more—but burning natural gas also produces less air pollution.

All of these "new energy vehicle" efforts are a bid to restrain the catastrophic air pollution in China. As Frank jokes, the smog is so thick that it can block GPS or even cell phone signals: "It's like being in a building." Even the best efforts to control air-fouling emissions from industrial sources—power plants, cement kilns, factories—fail because of the continuing growth in private vehicles. The newly rich may even have two cars—more cars than children—adding to the seemingly ever-thickening haze.

Beijing, however, has now imposed draconian restrictions on the total number of cars permitted in the capital city and requires 40 percent of newly purchased vehicles to be "new energy vehicles." There are even more than 1,000 subsidized electric car taxis in Beijing, though this fleet has struggled with charging time and range. A more popular effort to restrain smog (and traffic) in many smaller cities is to implement a schedule of odd/even days for permission to drive a private car, depending on the last digit of the license plate. It is a scheme that worked to bring down, at least temporarily, traffic and air pollution in Beijing during the 2008 Summer Olympics. Even so, car purchases are nearly impossible to control, given that buying a car has become just as much a part of the Chinese dream as the American one. As a result of that vision, it seems the Chinese will happily import any oil the U.S. does not want, whether Saudi Arabian light crude or processed tar sands from Canada.

Even in Jinan's gleaming new high-speed train station, advertisements for private cars predominate, including an actual Volkswagen sitting in the entrance lobby. Traffic jams occur even on Sundays, as the roads clog with SUVs, big sedans and other cars. The congestion can get so bad that a taxi driver can casually peruse the newspaper while stopped. And the local transportation map at Beijing's international airport is emblazoned with the phrase "traffic strategy," emphasizing the city's newly expanded subway system.

Major cities like Beijing and Shanghai have built entire subway systems in a matter of years, but no one in "Spring City" wants to mess with the springs that still provide drinking water—and swimming space, even in the chill of late autumn—for Jinan residents. The spring water is still clear and clean enough for fish to thrive, and no one here seems interested in damaging the underground water courses to enable a subway line. Then there is the cautionary sight of the river of humanity one must ford to get on or off the subway in other cities like Beijing during rush hour, thanks to a fare of just two renminbi, or roughly 33 cents.

China is in the midst of a transportation revolution, one that started with a shift from ubiquitous bicycles to ubiquitous automobiles—with attendant impacts on lifestyle, sprawl and pollution. This revolution still in process means tremendous growth in all forms of transportation, from the highly polluting to the relatively green and efficient. China will have both gasoline-powered cars and electric buses; high-speed trains and polluting flights. Nothing, short of economic collapse, can stop China's growth, so the only hope is restraint: a few more electric buses—sparks, squeaks and all—and a few less cars spewing ever more air pollution.

Proof of this “more of everything” reality, if proof is needed, is the fact that the bicycles have never gone away, and have even improved with the introduction of electric bikes—essentially pedal-powered bicycles with an electric motor assist. Such electric bicycles are very popular as a cheap transportation offering, silently weaving in and out of traffic in cities across China—often bearing more than one passenger. And there are electric mopeds too, like the one Frank just purchased with 80 kilometers worth of range in its more than 28-kilogram battery pack. It will replace the ordinary bicycle he rode six kilometers each way to and from his office daily. As he explains, an electric moped  "is most convenient for ordinary people."

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