By Molly Wang
It’s certainly not if we’re looking at speed. When I first came to Britain three years ago, I spent three hours on the train from Heathrow airport to Norwich. Had I been in China, I could have made the journey from Beijing to Shanghai in the same time frame, covering a distance 6 times greater. I thought I was coming to a developed country from a developing one; I was not impressed.
However, what I did enjoy was having a whole row of two seats to myself – a luxury that one can seldom experience on Chinese trains. In China, there are simply too many people and too few seats; although we had 50,246 trains by the end of 2010, we had a population of 1.3 billion.
I still remember the nightmare of catching tubes in Shanghai during rush hours – I might be lucky enough to get on the tube, yet not quite lucky enough to get through the crowds and get off at my stop. Now three years have passed and we have built more subways, but the capacity is still a big issue to tackle.
As I stayed in this country for longer, I realised that it may not be necessary for Britain to have super-speed trains capable of moving at 240mph – or even more – like those that China has been investing in. Considering the geographical scope of Britain, and also the fact that high speed trains require new railway systems which may not make them a cost effective move for the Government, it does not seem an essential step.
So, if we have to live with slow trains in the U.K, then maybe we can save some time when we are not on the road. This is an area where I think China can learn from Britain, as many efforts have been made to make transport ‘smarter’. For example, you can buy tickets online or from ticket machines even minutes before the train departs, and there’s a wide variety of options to choose from. Whilst we are seeing a growing presence of such facilities in China, they are not yet common: at busy times, such as national holidays, you probably need to queue for hours to be served by the ticket office.
Though capacity and efficiency are what Chinese transport needs to improve on – and I believe that we have the capability to catch up with developed countries in a short time – I think there is something more important we need to learn from Britain; the lifestyle associated with transport behaviour. I strongly feel that transport planning in the UK does not just aim to provide convenience, but also tries to shape our lifestyle and, in particular, encourage a low carbon regime.
I can easily think of lots of practices for such purposes that are implemented by organisations that I have studied or worked in. For example, car-sharing has been a very common scheme adopted to reduce unnecessary car use. At the Energy Saving Trust, in order to avoid unnecessary business travel by aviation, any domestic air travel has to be approved by our Chief Executive and recorded properly.
Besides, transport operation companies have also put in place many strategies that are designed to encourage customers to choose public transport, and also to consider the impacts of their own transport behaviour on the environment. For example, where a variety of promotions are available for using public transport in Britain, in China they are only really available to students, disabled passengers and families of army servants.
In Britain, be it as a young person, a senior citizen, or travelling with your family or as a group, there seems to be choices available for everyone. In addition, when you purchase rail tickets online, you are provided with a range of your options, as well as details of the emissions you will avoid generating by choosing to travel by rail, rather than driving or flying.
In China, although a low carbon agenda is emerging on the horizon, the general public cannot easily obtain relevant information. Clear facts speak louder than suggestions, and without seeing the data or knowing the impacts, one cannot be easily motivated to change behaviour.
Another positive lifestyle message that I think transport planning in the UK is trying to send is to plan your life ahead. On the basis of my own experience, purchasing tickets even just one day before travelling could get me discounts of up to 80%. Planning ahead is a traditional merit in China and an important part of Confucian philosophy, but I always felt that the new generation of China has lost such merit thanks to the fast-pace economy. It is since I came to the UK that I have again picked up the good habit of planning ahead – not just when it comes to transport activities, but also my life in general.