Is China Considering a Divorce From Its Car Culture?

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[By Paul Goddin for Mobility Lab]

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If the 20th Century was the era of America’s honeymoon with the car, the 21st has given way to the reluctant realization that this suitor has come with some baggage – air pollution, urban sprawl, obesity, and traffic congestion, to name a few.

It is not just the U.S. that is contemplating a car “divorce.” The same scenario is playing out in other parts of the developed (and developing) world, just at varying paces and in different degrees.

While “many Chinese still associate car ownership with status, cars are losing their appeal as a status symbol in most segments in China’s mega-cities,” concludes a new report from management consulting firm Bain & Company, Inc.

This should come as no surprise. China, which is experiencing urbanization “on a scale the world has never seen,” according to Bloomberg, will contain eight cities of at least 10 million people in the coming decade. Already, cities like Beijing and Shanghai are suffering from extreme traffic congestion and poor air quality.

As we have seen in the U.S., urbanization and car ownership are inherently at odds. Bain’s report states, “car ownership in these large urban areas [is] more expensive and less convenient and safe – hence, less attractive.”

The report’s authors, Raymond Tsang and Pierre-Henri Boutot, blame changing Chinese perceptions of the automobile on deteriorating driving conditions and tighter regulations in the country. At the same time, they credit China’s significant investments in public transportation with making these alternatives more appealing.

Bain’s survey found that if traffic conditions continue to deteriorate significantly or gas prices increase sharply, 10 percent to 30 percent of current car owners claim they would consider giving up their cars.

Survey respondents’ most important factors when choosing a mobility option, as shown in the below graph, are safety, timeliness, and reliability.

Bain’s research supports the introduction of “new mobility” solutions in China, such as carsharing and car-rental options, even though these services remain unfamiliar to most Chinese residents.

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Shanghai Traffic photo by Dhi. Chart courtesy Bain & Company.

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