HCP Research Brief: Influence of Urban Form on Active Transport in Chengdu China

August 26, 2020
Chengdu, China

Summary of New Project Publication for Non-Specialists

Publication: ChengHe Guan and Ann Forsyth. In press (2020). “The influence of urban form and socio-demographics on active transport: A 40 neighborhoods study in Chengdu, China”Journal of Transport and Land Use.

ChengHe Guan is Assistant Professor of Urban Science and Policy, New York University Shanghai, and a postdoctoral research alumnus and current Associate of the Harvard-China Project on Energy, Economy and Environment based at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He earned his DDes at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD). Ann Forsyth is Ruth and Frank Stanton Professor of Urban Planning and Director of the Master in Urban Planning Program at GSD, and a faculty affiliate of the Harvard-China Project (HCP). The 2016 household survey in Chengdu was conducted by the HCP in collaboration with the Research Center for Contemporary China of Peking University.

This HCP Research Brief for non-specialists was written by ChengHe Guan.

Summary of the Research

Chinese cities are experiencing rapid growth and Chinese urban neighborhoods are undergoing substantial change. The government has launched a series of planning policies to promote active transport (walking and cycling), for example, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development and the National Development and Reform Commission’s guidelines and suggestions for building pedestrian and bike networks. However, the numbers of private motor vehicles in China continue to increase (123 million in 2015) and the share of active modes has continued to fall. 

Active transportation should be examined in the context of multiple socio-demographic variables and urban-form variables at the neighborhood level, as well as by neighborhood types. Neighborhood types are important in China because nationally there are many parallels among developments from similar periods, and these neighborhoods mix a bundle of physical and social characteristics. By examining individual and neighborhood factors, this paper provides a more nuanced view of the evolving landscape of active transport in China.   

Using a survey of 1,048 individuals conducted in 2016 in Chengdu—located in a carefully conceptualized typology of neighborhood forms—we analyzed the associations between individual and neighborhood characteristics and active or non-motorized transport behavior. Using several multiple logistic and multi-level models, we show how neighborhoods were categorized and the number of categories or neighborhood types affected the magnitude of the associations with active transport but not the direction. People taking non-work trips were more likely to use active compared with motorized modes in all neighborhood types. Neighborhood type was significant in models, but so were many other individual-level variables and infrastructural and locational features such as bike lanes and location near the river. Of the physical environment variables, floor area ratio (a proxy for density) was only significant in one model for non-work trips. Intersection density and dissimilarity (land use diversity) were only significant in a model for work trips. 

This study shows that to develop strong theories about the connections between active transport and environments, it is important to examine different physical and cultural contexts and perform sensitivity analyses. Research in different parts of China can help provide a more substantial base for evidence-informed policy-making. Planning and design recommendations related to active transport need to consider how neighborhoods, built environments, and personal characteristics interact in different kinds of urban environments.

Have a question for the researchers? Email us at harvardchinaproject@harvard.edu.

Acknowledgements: The household survey in Chengdu and part of Dr. Guan’s postdoctoral research were funded by the Harvard Global Institute, under an award to the Harvard-China Project on the theme of “China 2030/2050: Energy and Environmental Challenges for the Future.