Beijing nearly doubles in population, environmental impact increases 4x

Rapid population growth in Beijing has led to a much larger environmental impact:

Researchers from NASA and Stanford University recently estimated that the area directly affected by Beijing’s urbanization has quadrupled in size from 2000 to 2009. So while the area we call Beijing has remained roughly the same size, its environmental influence has grown far larger. These findings, published this week in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, draw on new computer models and data from NASA’s QuikScat satellite.

From 2000 to 2014, Beijing’s population grew from around 11 million to 21 million—today packing as many people into one city as there are in all of Australia (or North Korea or Syria). Strangely, the study didn’t measure the effect of more greenhouse gas emissions released by these additional residents and their vehicles. Instead, it only measured the growth of physical infrastructure—for instance, new roads and buildings.

The changes in the city’s physical infrastructure had massive, compounding effects on its weather and climate. New roads, for instance, reduce the ground’s albedo, its ability to reflect light and heat away from the city, and buildings prevented air from circulating freely. Those effects have resulted in higher temperatures and lower wind speeds. Researchers found that winter temperatures had increased in the city by 5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit, while wind speeds were reduced by about 2 to 7 miles per hour, making the city air even more stagnant, according to the American Geophysical Union.

Some have argued that larger cities may be better for the environment in the long run because they use less land (and Beijing did not increase in land mass during this period) and there are economies of scale. Yet, this may primarily apply to (a) cities in the wealthiest countries and/or (b) cities with slower rates of growth. Simply adding ten million people in 14 years probably isn’t good for the environment as even the most advanced cities of today would have a difficult time absorbing that many people in housing, let alone dealing with the environmental impact. For a comparison, see the major infrastructure efforts in the Chicago region to mitigate flooding: the region has grown but this happened over a century and the Chicago region still has 10+ million fewer people than Beijing. And still it is very difficult to get a handle on stormwater and flooding during major storms, let alone in a city adding 10 million people in 14 years.

52% of Beijing’s residents live in suburban-like areas

Beijing has grown to over 21 million residents but more than half live beyond 12 miles of the city center:

More than half of Beijing’s 21.5 million residents live outside the Fifth Ring Road, a beltway built in the early 2000s that traces a circle roughly 12 miles in diameter around the city, the Beijing Municipal Statistics Bureau said Thursday. Nearly 52% of the city’s roughly 8.2 million migrants—who lack local household registration, or hukou—are suburban dwellers.

The data mark the first time Beijing authorities have mapped the distribution of residents with reference to its six ring roads (a seventh is under construction), numbered progressively as they radiate from the city center. Experts say the numbers highlight the uneven spread of public services—typically clustered in the capital’s central areas—and reflect socioeconomic realities faced by low-income rural migrants.

The clustering of residents on Beijing’s outer fringes will become more pronounced over the coming years, as the city center has limited capacity for accommodating further population growth, Song Yueping, an associate professor at Renmin University’s School of Sociology and Population Studies, told the Beijing Times. Furthermore, new arrivals from outside the capital typically earn less and can only afford cheaper suburban housing, the newspaper quoted her as saying.

This sounds remarkably similar to recent stories about the difficulties in providing social services or mass transit in the American suburbs. Several other thoughts:

1. Many big cities in developing countries are sprawling. They may not stretch to 40-60 miles out like the biggest American cities but the rapid growth of new developments (whether funded by the government or through shantytowns) has to go somewhere.

2. If this followed the pattern of American development, we might expect to see new “urban” centers pop up in the suburbs, revolving around clusters of businesses and jobs as well as denser pockets of residential development.

3. The fact that the population can be so easily measured by the ring roads is interesting in itself. This suggests central planning that can keep putting in the ring roads. But, such roads might also help encourage sprawl along these roads as well as potentially lead to heavy traffic. Additionally, the ring roads likely serve as physical and social markers to differentiate sections of the city.

Beijing air pollution said to be “barely suitable for life”

Bad pollution in Beijing is nothing new but a new report sounds a dire note:

Severe pollution in Beijing has made the Chinese capital “barely suitable” for living, according to an official Chinese report, as the world’s second-largest economy tries to reduce often hazardous levels of smog caused by decades of rapid growth…

The report, by the Beijing-based Social Science Academic Press and the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, ranked the Chinese capital second worst out of 40 global cities for its environmental conditions, official media reported on Thursday.

China’s smog has brought some Chinese cities to a near standstill, caused flight delays and forced schools to shut.

Beijing was hit by severe levels of pollution at least once every week, according to the 2012 Blue Paper for World Cities report. That was on top of a significant level of air pollution covering the capital for 189 days in 2013, according to city’s Environmental Protection Bureau.

While U.S. readers might marvel at this, it wasn’t too long ago that some American cities had a similar problem. Check out some of the pictures of 1940s Pittsburgh or read about the Donora Smog incident near Pittsburgh that killed 22 in 1948. Some of these issues persist today: Los Angeles, and other cities in California, still have persistent smog and particulate issues.

Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest city, again topped the charts for ozone pollution, and finished fourth for particulate pollution such as dust and soot, in the American Lung Association’s annual national air quality report card, released on Wednesday…

In terms of air quality, California as a whole dominated the list of the most polluted U.S. cities, accounting for seven of the top 10 for ozone and eight of the top 10 for annual levels of particulate pollution, the American Lung Association said.

Nearly 90 percent of Californians, or 33.5 million people, live in areas plagued by unhealthy air, especially in Los Angeles, the so-called Inland Empire region east of the city, the state capital of Sacramento, and the agricultural heartland of the San Joaquin Valley, the group’s study found…

However, many California cities have shown steady progress on improving air quality, particularly the Los Angeles region, whose ozone levels have fallen by 36 percent since the organization’s first State of the Air report card in 2000.

See some pictures of smog in Los Angeles over the years here.

The “world’s longest fast train line” for the day after Christmas: Beijing to Guangzhou in eight hours

While high speed rail continues to inch along in the United States, China continues to build. A new line opened yesterday connecting Beijing and Guangzhou:

The opening of the 2,298 kilometer (1,428 mile)-line was commemorated by the 9 a.m. departure of a train from Beijing for Guangzhou. Another train left Guangzhou for Beijing an hour later…

Trains on the latest high-speed line will initially run at 300 kph (186 mph) with a total travel time of about eight hours. Before, the fastest time between the two cities by train was more than 20 hours…

More than 150 pairs of high-speed trains will run on the new line every day, the official Xinhua News Agency said, citing the Ministry of Railways.

Railway is an essential part in China’s transportation system, and the government plans to build a grid of high-speed railways with four east-west lines and four north-south lines by 2020.

When I see stories like this about infrastructure in China, I’m struck by three things:

1. The ability to construct these large infrastructure projects is remarkable. I wonder what China will do next. Faster trains? An even bigger rail network?

2. The contrast with transportation options in the United States is interesting. Our equivalent to high-speed trains is an extensive interstate network that connects all major cities. The interstate option plays on several American traits: it was built in the prosperous era after World War II, it allows more freedom for driving (which requires certain incomes and interest in driving), and it allows for more diffuse living patterns (meaning: suburbs).

3. I wish these stories were accompanied by ridership figures. Over 150 pairs of trains a day is impressive and these are two major population centers: Beijing has over 19 million people and Guangzhou has over 12 million people (and perhaps around 40 million in the Pearl River Delta). So are these trains going to be full? How much does it cost? Can the average Chinese resident ride these trains?