Urban and regional settlement patterns have major implications for transportation, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions. China and the USA differ markedly in their sources of GHGs. In the USA, transportation is the leading contributor to GHG emissions, about 29 percent of the total (US EPA 2020a). In China, transportation generates only 8 percent of GHG emissions but about half of GHG emissions come from the industrial sector (People’s Republic of China 2018, p. 19).
China’s urbanized land area exploded from 7438 km2 in 1981 to 45,566 km2 in 2012 (Su et al. 2017, p. 3). China uses four main tiers to classify its cities: Tier 1 cities have more than 15 million people and a GDP of more than $300 billion; Tier 2 cities have 3 to 15 million people and a GDP of $68-$299 billion; Tier 3 cities have 150,000 to 3 million people and a GDP of $18-$67 billion, and Tier 4 cities have less than 150,000 and a GDP of less than $17 billion. China has 5 cities in Tier 1, 30 in Tier 2, 138 in Tier 3, and 480 in Tier 4 (China Briefing 2021). Urban expansion is expected to continue with 75 percent of the population living in urban areas by 2050 (Su et al. 2017). Urbanization along with rapid economic development has resulted in a significant loss of agricultural land, increased air pollution, haphazard development patterns, and a growing income gap between rural and urban residents (ibid.).
In response, to the growing urbanization, China has implemented a settlement concept known as the megaregion, which consists of one or more major cities and their metro areas that share economic, environmental, and social and cultural ties (Lang and Nelson 2007; Chen et al. 2020). In 2006, China adopted the megaregion as a cornerstone of national five-year plans. Goals include orderly urban growth, social equity, environmental sustainability, and economic development (Su et al. 2017, p. 3). China has designated 20 mega-regions, led by greater Beijing-Tianjin (over 100 million people), Shanghai-Nanjing (over 150 million), and Guangzhou-Shenzhen (over 60 million) (ibid., p. 4) (see Fig. 1). Altogether, the megaregions contain a majority of China’s population.
China has made massive investments in transportation infrastructure to complement the megaregion settlement strategy. Since 2008, China has built more than 35,000 km of high-speed rail, the most extensive high speed rail network in the world (Jones 2021). High-speed rail has linked the cluster of cities within a megaregion and connected the megaregions to each other (The Economist 2020) (see Fig. 2). Especially for trips of less than 300 miles, high speed rail is competitive in time and convenience with flying and generates far less GHG emissions (Nelson and Lang 2011).
Ironically, the megaregion concept emerged from the example of the US northeast metropolis (Gottman 1964; Lang and Nelson 2007; Yaro et al. 2022). But implementing a megaregion strategy in the USA has so far proven elusive. Several USA would-be megaregions cross state boundaries (such as Cascadia, Northeast, and Piedmont) but few interstate planning agreements exist (see Fig. 3). The USA has more than 300 Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) that plan for how to spend federal transportation funds within a metro region, which may cross state boundaries, such as greater Philadelphia or greater San Francisco. But a megaregion consists of a much larger area of two or more metro regions (Nelson and Lang, 2011; US DOT, 2011). As Fig. 3 illustrates, megaregional planning could happen within a state, such as Southern California or the Texas Triangle, or across states, such as Oregon and Washington.
China has shown how massive investments from the national government in high-speed rail can link megaregions internally as well as to other megaregions. High speed rail is appropriate for the USA where the transportation sector is the leading source of GHG emissions (29%) (US EPA 2020a). High speed rail in the USA is evolving into a blend of publicly and privately funded systems. But the pace to install high speed rail has been slow.
The main US operating high-speed rail is in the Northeast, connecting Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. The effort to build high-speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles has been hindered by cost overruns, with an estimated price tag now of $105 billion (KPIX 5 (San Francisco 2022). Even so, a handful of high-speed rail projects are moving ahead. The US High Speed Rail Association has proposed the creation of a high-speed rail development authority within the U.S. Department of Transportation to oversee and help fund the construction of high-speed rail. The Association also identified five essential high-speed rail projects, some of which are under construction: San Francisco to Los Angeles in California; Dallas to Houston in Texas (a public–private partnership), upgrading New York City tunnels; Portland to Seattle to Vancouver, Canada; and Tampa to Orlando and Miami to Orlando (privately funded) in Florida. Several smaller projects are on the drawing board, such as Los Angeles to Las Vegas (a public–private partnership), Chicago to Milwaukee, and Kansas City to St. Louis in Missouri (Mass Transit 2020; US High Speed Rail Association 2022; Yaro et al. 2022, p, 264).
The USA must find ways to build high-speed rail more efficiently and cost-effectively. Otherwise, US high speed rail systems are unlikely to support the megaregion settlement patterns that China has pursued. The USA can learn from China that huge federal investment in high-speed rail will be needed to create several networks. Furthermore, high-speed rail can tie together a megaregion to reduce short haul air travel and long car trips and help to produce a more compact settlement pattern (Nelson and Lang 2011; Yaro et al. 2022, p. 244). The savings in energy and the reduction of GHG emissions would be considerable (Yaro et al. 2022, p. 244). Also, millions of jobs would be created in the construction of high-speed rail networks (US High Speed Rail Association 2022; Yaro et al. 2022, p. 245).
Transit and electric vehicles
The USA has a dispersed settlement pattern which has created a “suburban nation” where, since 1990, more Americans live in suburbs than in central cities and rural areas (Duany et al 2000). These low-density settlement patterns have emerged because of huge investments in roads and a heavy reliance on cars and trucks, and as a result, suburban dwellers use more energy per capita than city residents and hence generate more GHG emissions per capita (Owen 2010). Federal transportation policy has greatly favored road construction and repair over the development of transit systems (bus, subway, and light rail). Transit ridership in the USA increased by only one million from 1970 to 2019—even though the US population increased by 120 million, and vehicle miles traveled in cars and trucks nearly tripled (Freemark 2021; Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis 2021). In the 2021 infrastructure bill, Congress authorized $39 billion for public transit and $66 billion in passenger and freight rail, but $110 billion for roads and bridges (Lobosco and Luhby 2021).
Replacing gasoline-powered cars with electric vehicles is a common goal for China and the USA. But this will not be easy for either country. China had 281 million vehicles as of 2019 and the USA had 276 million; and, not surprisingly, the USA and China rank first and second among countries in oil consumption (US EIA 2021a). To reach the goal of 40 percent of all car sales from electric vehicles by 2030, China would have to sell about 12 million electric vehicles in that year (Stauffer 2021). Ramping up production of electric vehicles would mean increasing electric vehicle sales from 1.6 million vehicles—just seven percent of total vehicle sales in 2020—to a total of 6 million vehicles over the decade to 2030 (ibid.). China has offered subsidies for buyers of electric vehicles, but the subsidies are expected to disappear as COVID retreats and automakers are mandated to increase the sale of electric vehicles. China is also requiring all gasoline-powered cars sold in 2035 to be hybrids (Nikkei Asia 2020).
New light vehicle sales in the USA in 2020 were about 14.5 million, of which 231,000 were all electric vehicles or a total of just 1.7 percent (US Dept of Energy 2021a).
China can learn from the USA to retain subsidies for consumers who buy electric vehicles. In turn, the USA should learn from China to require all new cars that use gasoline be hybrids by 2035. But China can learn from 12 US states, including California and New York, that have standards that require an increasing number of vehicle sales be zero emission. The automobile industry is already moving in that direction.
A challenge in both countries will be the cost of electric batteries and the availability of the rare earth minerals to make the batteries. China has an advantage as the world leader in the production of EV batteries and rare earths (Geall et al. 2021). But will there be enough lithium and rare earths to make tens of millions of electric vehicles?
Table 1 summarizes the general settlement and transportation approaches in China and the USA that promote movement away from fossil fuels and thus reduce GHGs. These provide a basis for mutual learning, with China leading in the use of high-speed rail infrastructure and megaregion settlement patterns to manage growth and the US leading in financial incentives for electric vehicles and zero emission vehicle goals.