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A bus rapid transit system in Guangzhou, China.

The award-winning transport system in Guangzhou, in south China's Guangdong province, includes not only Bus Rapid Transit but wide, tree-lined bicycle lanes and a tie-in to the large city's rail network.

Photograph by Li Huang, Color China Photo/AP

By Josie Garthwaite

For National Geographic News

Published January 24, 2011

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

A bike-sharing program, wide bicycle lanes lined with trees, and a huge bus system that ties in with the city rail network are all part of the recipe for a winning transportation system in Guangzhou, China, according to the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP).

ITDP, an international nonprofit that works with cities on projects to reduce greenhouse gases and improve the quality of urban life, named Guangzhou the winner of its 2011 Sustainable Transport Award at a ceremony Monday night in Washington, D.C.

Guangzhou clinched the prize, said Jessica Morris, senior program director for ITDP, largely because it surpassed expectations. The bus rapid transit system, which opened in February 2010, "carries an awful lot of people," as many as 800,000 a day, she said, making it one of the world's largest. Perhaps more importantly, the new bus system "hooks up seamlessly" with rail as well as "idyllic" bicycle paths and bike-sharing stations, and helps to make the city "more livable."

Serving More Than The Economy

ITDP has been working closely with Guangzhou to build out the bus and bike infrastructure, she said, and the city's recent transportation efforts make it a place that "goes against the idea of a burgeoning Chinese metropolis that's only serving the economy." Experts say that easing congestion and reducing pollution from the transportation sector in China—with its increasingly urban and car-buying population—will require coordination of land-use planning, information technology, and mass-transit development, as well as cleaner vehicles.

(Read more on China’s efforts here: "On China’s Roads and Rails, a Move To Greener Transit.")

Zhong-Ren Peng, who chairs the University of Florida's Department of Urban and Regional Planning and is an expert in transportation planning in China, noted in an email that Guangzhou did much work in transportation and planning in preparation for serving as host to the 16th annual Asian Games in November, just as Shanghai did in preparation for last year's World Expo.

The projects and progress that ITDP seeks to reward are about more than going green. According to Morris, the committee of organizations assembled to nominate and select cities for the prize look for three factors in a "sustainable" transportation system: The system should benefit both the city’s environment and its economy, and it should be equitable, meaning "you should be able to move about your city regardless of income level," she explained.

(Related from National Geographic, "China’s Middle Class: Gilded Age, Gilded Cage")

In recent years, the Sustainable Transport Award has gone to New York in the United States; Paris, France; Guayaquil, Ecuador; Seoul, South Korea; and Bogotá, Colombia. Ahmadabad, India, snagged the award last year for opening what the ITDP described as the country's first full bus rapid transit system.

This year, Guangzhou beat out nominees León, Guanajuato, Mexico; Lima, Peru; Nantes, France; and Tehran, Iran, where the "local climate, topography, and sharp growth in private cars have all conspired to create a lingering air-quality emergency over the city," said Lloyd Wright, Executive Director of Viva Cities, in a news release about the nominations.

Tehran's Effort Amid Controversy

Each of the nominated cities took steps in 2010 to shake up its transportation system, according to ITDP. Tehran's journey has been particularly fraught with controversy, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Tehran Mayor Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf have clashed over funding for an expanded underground rail system. One of the world's most densely populated metropolitan areas, Tehran also introduced congestion charging and expanded its bus rapid transit. "Even more boldly," according to the ITDP, Tehran's government has "begun the process of reducing fuel subsidies."

Over the weekend, however, the Tehran-e Emrouz newspaper reported that the Iran Foreign Ministry had denied Qalibaf permission to travel to the United States for Monday's conference.

Nantes made it into the ITDP's top five for its efforts to integrate bus and tramway systems, while also promoting bicycling. In Lima, a "long-awaited" first step toward "creating an integrated citywide sustainable transport system," came in the form of a new bus rapid transit system. And León has boosted rail and bus ridership while keeping the portion of trips taken by bicycle or on foot among the largest of any Latin American city at more than 39 percent, according to the ITDP.

Jiangping Zhou, ITDP's Policy Director in Beijing, believes Guangzhou’s efforts could be replicated in other Chinese cities. "If something can happen there," he said, "it can happen in Shanghai and Beijing."

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