Walkability in Chinese cities: At a glance

  • Published: 7 August 2018
  • Author: Gloria Luo

As cities around the world are exploring car-free initiatives today, walkability has become an increasingly important indicator when measuring a city’s sustainability performance and a key factor shaping its future.

Promoting walkability reflects a shift from the car-centric urban design and planning dominant in the 20th century, to a human-centered approach prioritizing pedestrians in urban growth. A 2016 Civic Exchange report shared the multitude of benefits created by walkable cities, such as:

  • Enhanced public health
  • Better economic opportunities for retail or restaurant businesses
  • Reduced greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants from vehicles
  • Fostering inclusion and equity by creating social interactions and experience

Walkable cities gain traction in China

Against the backdrop of a rapidly urbanizing China, making cities more walkable has been recently viewed as one of the solutions to the intertwined urban problems like traffic congestion, environmental deterioration and compromised public safety.

Since China’s central government put forward the roadmap to build more liveable, efficient and green cities back in 2016, almost all provinces have issued policies and planning documents to improve urban environments. These plans include investments into pedestrian and biker friendly infrastructure, as well as public transit.

How walkable are Chinese cities?

Source: China City Walkability Report

Seeking to understand the current development of walkable cities in China, a group of researchers from the NRDC and Tsinghua University examined 287 Chinese cities through the lens of street walkability. Up to 100 points could be awarded based on the number, variety and the walking distance to “points of interest” on individual streets like shops, restaurants and schools.

Their co-authored China City Walkability Report was published last December, revealing interesting findings:

95% of Chinese cities reached an average walking score of 60 points and above, indicating that in general, most urban residents can run some errands on foot or by bike.

13 medium and small cities with a population less than 5 million were scored above 85 points and most walkable. Most of these cities are from the western China, and the highest scored city is Bazhong in Sichuan Province.

Among large cities with a population of 5 million people or more, Shantou, Xi’an, Chengdu, Chongqing, Hangzhou and Shanghai are the most walkable cities, whose scores exceeded 80 points.

With reference to the Walk Score methodology, a widely used metric system to measure walkability, the team assessed street vitality by the extent to which people meet their daily life needs through walking.

Towards sustainable cities and communities

These results show that China’s more walkable cities today, according to the “points of interest” criteria, are those where urban expansion has been limited by geographical conditions or lower level of economic development, resulting in lower population density, more intensive land use patterns and compact spatial layout. Pedestrian streets are also more prevalent in these areas as a key component of the traditional and vibrant street life that continues to date.

In contrast, larger cities have followed the form of developing urban superblocks with wide and non-walkable roads since China’s reform and opening-up in 1978, thus lagging the less developed areas in this walkability ranking after 40 years of urban sprawl.

There are good examples of street pedestrianization projects in China, such as Shanghai transforming the Bund into a signature waterfront area. More efforts, however, are needed to fully integrate the fundamental human-centered approach into urban planning and management policies towards more sustainable urban growth throughout China.

To this end, it is essential that we emphasize quality over quantity when building cities and roads, explore mixed-use zoning and transit oriented development, and provide necessary infrastructure to encourage walking, biking, and ultimately a sustainable lifestyle for all.