Transport sector energy and carbon ride high in European and American cities—ranging from 20% of city greenhouse gas emissions in Amsterdam to 36% in Austin. In contrast, in Chinese cities, transport accounts for roughly 10% to 20%, surpassed by industry at 40 to 70%. Yet mobility is on the rise with rapid urbanization and increase in automobiles. Within just 10 years (1997 to 2007), Beijing went from 1 million vehicles to 3 million, with an immediate impact on air quality and human health: 31% of the city’s PM2.5 emissions are attributed to automobiles.
From a systems perspective, the energy needed for urban mobility is fundamentally influenced by the design of the city—the positioning of residences and businesses vis a vis community facilities and green spaces, along with the choice of transport infrastructure and other factors. Thus urban form becomes a “first fuel” for mobility.
The focus of this analysis is on policies and infrastructure choices that encourage energy efficient and low-carbon mobility in Chinese cities, drawing upon examples from around the world. This analysis utilizes indicator systems and benchmarking in three tools (BEST Cities, ELITE Cities, and Urban RAM) to characterize and compare mobility and urban form across Chinese and international cities. Two of the tools characterize operational energy and carbon, while Urban RAM takes a life-cycle perspective, giving attention to embodied energy in transport and other urban sectors. We analyze urban policy strategies that are yielding results around the world and examine their applicability in Chinese cities, from urban villages and complete (multi-modal) streets to vehicle license restrictions and public transit investments. We consider the strategies Chinese cities can pursue to not only save transport energy and carbon, but also to clear the air and enhance livability and livelihoods. Ground-level ozone and PM2.5, the integration of green and blue infrastructure for resiliency, and mobility access for the growing urbanized population are highlighted. In conclusion, we synthesize the low-carbon transport lessons to learn and exchange among cities in China, the EU, US, and elsewhere.