The urban history that makes China’s coronavirus lockdown possible

Hankou Railway Station, Wuhan, on 22 January 2020. Image: Getty.

Hundreds of millions of people in cities in China have been affected by measures to contain the novel coronavirus. It has been reported that people have been asked to provide information such as their temperature via mobile phone, and that in some neighbourhoods only one member of a family is allowed out every few days to buy food. Visitors from outside residential complexes have been forbidden from entering, and public gatherings have been cancelled.

Although some of the monitoring of people’s health and movement has been done using mobile phone apps, much of it relies on hundreds of thousands of volunteers. They stand guard at the gates of residential complexes, enforce quarantines and conduct temperature checks.

A recent World Health Organization report praised the efforts of the Chinese government and its people in limiting the spread of the virus. The report noted the importance of community participation in the decision to lock down the cities. However, the mobilisation of the volunteers who guard buildings and conduct temperature checks relies on a system of governance built on China’s urban history. This means similar measures may not work elsewhere.

Local volunteers

Chinese urban governance – and the current coronavirus lockdown – is overseen by local residents’ committees. These have their origins in the 1950s, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) established control over cities. Urban districts were sub-divided into residents’ committees, made up of several hundred households, and residents’ small groups, composed of fewer still. They were staffed by CCP officials and local volunteers, and were responsible for keeping order, putting up propaganda posters, and running political campaigns.

The committees gained greater importance during China’s period of economic reform, which began in 1978. Private sector growth meant the number of people employed in work units – state-owned organisations which provided housing, schooling and social activities – declined. The work units’ responsibilities shifted to the residents’ committees. Today, the committees have control over unemployment and pensions payments, public health and the local environment. They arbitrate in domestic disputes, promote cultural activities, and help people find work.

Since the late 1990s, it has become more common for two or three residents’ committees to be amalgamated into a larger community, known as a shequ. These can comprise as many as 16,000 people from diverse social backgrounds and include organisations such as companies and schools from the local area. Within the shequ, a neighbourhood delegate assembly elects the members of the residents’ committees, who are often women. The CCP retains control by having party secretaries elected or appointed. Local urban governance is, at least in part, the responsibility of people in the communities themselves.

This evolution of Chinese urban governance gives the CCP the ability to monitor cities closely, especially when it is combined with modern hi-tech surveillance systems. This has certainly resulted in draconian measures to control the urban population in recent weeks.

However, while the Chinese government is certainly capable of repression, to see residents’ committees as simply the arms of an authoritarian state bent on total control is too simplistic.


A shared experience

Many of the staff of these committees are drawn from the local community. This means that for many Chinese, the inconveniences of the lockdown, such as guards outside residential complexes and temperature checks, do not necessarily feel like something that has been imposed on them. Instead, they are a shared experience that can bring people together, as shouts of support from tower block to tower block in Wuhan show.

As the coronavirus spreads around the world, other countries must be careful about looking to China for examples of how to manage it. Cities in other countries do not have a political culture that would allow them to replicate what China has done, or the same governance structures. The Chinese model of urban development in the 20th century is not entirely unique, since it derives some of its inspiration from the USSR, but it has certainly diverged from the West.

Instead, if locking down urban populations is proven to be the most effective way of containing the virus, officials must look at the tools they have in their governance armouries.

This includes the police and other emergency services, but also charities and community groups. They often already work closely with city government, and are able to mobilise their members to take action. This could include checking up on vulnerable residents or helping to deliver food supplies to families who might be under quarantine. The coming weeks will test the resilience of our cities and our communities.

The Conversation

Toby Lincoln, Lecturer, Chinese urban history, University of Leicester.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.