Around the world, transit gives everyone the freedom of movement they deserve.

Mobility is freedom

At first blush, it’s reasonable to think that Shanghai and Calgary don’t have a lot in common.

Yes, they’re both cities, but Shangahi is a massive metropolis of 30 million people, while Calgary sits just above 1 million. Shanghai sits on a port, near the ocean, in a communist country of over 1.3 billion people that is still often considered “developing” (though that is certainly arguable). Calgary sits between mountain and prairie, in a firmly developed country of 35 million that values democracy and personal freedom. What could these two cities, worlds apart, possibly have in common?

In the context of this post, the answer lies in public transportaiton, and what it can offer the citizens that it serves. Shanghai is home to an incredible metro system that was built over the course of 15 years in an explosive display of centralized planning as part of a concerted effort to modernize China’s most important cities. As a result, the metro system is a thing of wonder: trains that run every 3 minutes, careful planning of lines that allow you to access the majority of the massive system with only one transfer, and cell phone signal in the system to boot. On its own, it is an impressive feat of planning and construction that rivals any transportation project in the world.

Shanghai Subway Map.

Shanghai Subway Map. Note the carefully interconnected lines

To me the true magic of the Shanghai subway is the way in which it unlocks much of the city to almost every citizen, from the young to the elderly, from the rich to the poor. Step through the superficial security checkpoint and through the turnstyles, and the entire city is available to you for an incredibly low price. In a relatively short time you can be at either of Shanghai’s two airports, any of the multitude of cultural stops and universities, or a neighbourhood of a friend or relative. With the subway, every citizen can experience true mobility in the vast city. This is true freedom: the ability to move and connect easily and cheaply with other people. In a country where the government sometimes makes connecting with people very difficult, the freedom the metro provides is incredibly important.

Don’t be miseld: there are cars and busy roads everywhere. Elevated highways encircle the city at various points, and cars interact dangerously with bikes and scooters at every corner. The road infrastructure in Shanghai is actually quite impressive, even by North American standards, but it simply cannot handle the vast amount of people in the city, and it cannot compete with the scalability and speed of the metro. Cars appear to be for the rich: most of the cars in Shanghai are new and expensive. Audi, Mercedes, and BMW are well represented here and try as I might I did not see a car that could be considered “old”. As we have recently read, cars can be a good tool for providing freedom of movement, but in cities they have a limiation. They are not true instruments of mobility in cities, and many have argued that they have begun to work against the very thing they were originally indended to do: provide personal freedom.

As we take slow steps in Calgary towards building a truly useful public transit system, it’s important that we think in terms of freedom. When we look at a project, we must ask: “who is going to be more mobilie because of this?” With a good project, chances are you’ll find more people than you were expecting.

Willem Klumpenhouwer

Willem is a PhD student in transportation planning and engineering at the University of Calgary, working on improving transit schedule design. In his spare time, Willem does programming projects and is a volunteer and improviser at the Loose Moose Theatre.

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