Michael A. Powills sees Shanghai traffic as a complicated dance. "Watching people move in Shanghai is astounding," says the senior vice president of Barton-Aschman Associates. "It's like a ballet, watching a pattern of movement . . . of people and bicycles."
Powills' task is to make sense of the choreography. His Evanston, Ill., firm, a unit of Pasadena-based Parsons Corp., has been assigned the task of sorting out Shanghai's 4 million bicycles, 13 million people, jammed buses, and assorted trucks and cars into an orderly transit plan.
Barton-Aschman, an engineering and transportation planning firm, is the first foreign firm to be hired by the Chinese for transit planning. But the initial $380,000 in funding for the three-year project came from a grant from the United States Trade and Development Program.
The program, part of the U.S. International Development Cooperation Agency, finances feasibility studies for development projects in Third World countries. Such projects are regarded as having substantial potential for the future sale of U.S. goods and services.
To help solve Shanghai's problems, Barton-Aschman will use a computer model that has helped city planners elsewhere to undo traffic snarls in many areas around the world, including the Bunker Hill area and along Ventura Boulevard in Southern California.
Like Paris or Buenos Aires
Powills says that on his first visit to Shanghai his party drove into the city. "We saw the streets getting narrow and narrower toward the middle of the city. Finally, we found a fairly European style of street. It was quite attractive but jampacked with pedestrians, bicycles and traffic jams. Things moved; it was not completely stagnated; but traffic moved in a different style than in a U.S. city.
"Unlike a lot of Asian cities, which have been planned under ancient Chinese plans which are very good with wide streets, Shanghai looks more like Paris of the 1920s or Buenos Aires."
Parts of Shanghai, in fact, were built by Europeans and Americans after the city became China's major western commercial center in the 1850s, when its port was opened to unrestricted foreign trade under the Treaty of Nanking.
As a basis for comparison of traffic patterns, Powills noted that in a U.S. city, vehicles account for 80% to 90% of traffic. In Shanghai, they account for only 13%.
"In a city like San Francisco or Los Angeles, total traffic by bus ranges from 3% to 15%," he says. "In Shanghai, it is 67%." Bus fare is 4 cents, and it's not unusual for buses to be crammed with 100 people. "In a U.S. city, the amount of bicycles are negligible. In Shanghai, there are over 4 million bicycles."
Barton-Aschman will feed mathematical data gathered by the Chinese into the computer model to simulate Shanghai's traffic flows. Then, the firm will make short-range recommendations for improvements. Finally, it will help develop long-range, capital-intensive transit plans for the city.
Alternatives Under Study
The Chinese, according to Powills, are testing construction methods for a subway. China has only one, small subway in Beijing. "The Shanghai people have said we need a subway as big and modern as the one in Hong Kong," explains Powills. "They want a system that can carry 60,000 people in one direction in one hour. The question arises with our work is how long a subway, how many stations and where it should be."
Other transportation alternatives the Chinese are studying include one-way streets or segregating traffic by type of vehicles--bicycles on one street and buses on another--and new roadway facilities such as bridges.
A team of four to five people from Barton-Aschman will work at various times in China. The Chinese planning group consists of 12 to 15 people from different agencies. Powills says four of the group will work out of Barton-Aschman's office in Evanston for two months.
The American executive has high praise for the Chinese he is working with. "They are unusually smart; I can't emphasize unusually enough. They, however, have distinct differences" from Americans, Powills says.
"They tend to rely extremely heavily on mathematics and technology. I tease them a little saying that 'you're smart enough to count all the raindrops.' They are short on experience because vehicles are just coming (to Shanghai). They tend, like a lot of us, to read publications and say, 'if we had computer, we could solve problem."