A tale of two cities – Auckland and Shanghai – and their public transport

Chris Bentley is a landscape architect and a partner at Boffa Miskell, as well as the founder of the company’s Shanghai office. He frequently travels between Auckland and Shanghai, and a recent journey led him to compare public transport between the two cities.

Certainly, the big difference between Shanghai and Auckland is the number of people. Compared with under 1.5 million for Auckland, Shanghai’s population is officially 25 million – and with that comes a huge need for efficient public transport.

All of China’s first-tier cities have extremely modern and effective public transport systems. In Shanghai, this consists of heavy rail, high-speed inter-city trains, and a metro subway that’s one of the largest in the world, extending over 600km.

 The Hongquo high speed train station in Shanghai.

The Hongquo high speed train station in Shanghai.

High-Speed rail connects cities and spreads the population to smaller centres. The speed (350kph), frequency and sheer volume of people carried by these trains have made outlying third- and fourth-tier cities more economically sustainable as business centres and assisted with investment and growth in those regions.

Within Shanghai and other large cities, along with the subway, there’s a massive bus network - including the latest in electric buses; and also ferries and taxis. In Shanghai, residents use one card for all these services.

 The many transport options in Shanghai

The many transport options in Shanghai

And, of course, incredible numbers of people walk and cycle. The topography of Shanghai is flat and the city has a long history of bikes sharing roads with traffic.

Most of Shanghai’s motorways, and other first tier cities in China, are elevated, separating commuter traffic from local roads. Like Auckland they have become very congested. To respond to that, the government does a lot to discourage private car use. Public transport is subsidised and very cheap. Cars are taxed heavily plus car ownership is restricted.

 Private car ownership is discouraged in Shanghai.

Private car ownership is discouraged in Shanghai.

China is going green and controls on car ownership is part of this. Every person that owns a car must purchase a vehicle registration, which stays with the owner (not the vehicle); this registration is hard to get and is extremely expensive. The number of vehicle registrations is limited each year and people enter a lottery to get one. Recently, the number of combustion engine vehicle registrations has been slashed.  If you’re successful, it currently costs 90,000rmb ($20,000NZD) to buy a registration for a petrol-engine vehicle – and that’s completely separate from the cost of buying the car itself.

A substantial proportion of new vehicle registrations are specifically allocated for electric vehicles, and to incentivise this move, registrations for electric vehicles are free.

Shanghai is also converting its bus fleet to electric buses, both trolley buses and quick-charge battery operated buses. These above-ground public transport options complement the subway system.


An intentional city-planning strategy to discourage car use is the limited number of parking facilities. There’s very limited on-street parking or public parking buildings in Shanghai which helps with encouraging residents to walk and cycle.

My family lived in Shanghai for seven years without owning a car. Although some Aucklanders manage this, usually it’s only by living in the central city; and even then, they will need to hire a car from time to time.

The current state of public transport in Auckland has given rise to much debate and many differing points of view. But cities large and small, around the world, have demonstrated that a robust public transport system -  along with safe options for pedestrians and cyclists – is the only way cities can grow and provide equitable access and connectivity for all residents.

It’s doubtful Kiwis would go along with a $20,000 registration fee, motorway tolls or many of the other government interventions that are applied in China, but clearly we need to get more people out of private vehicles and into a range of public transport. The shift to PT is happening and will accelerate as Auckland becomes more urbanised and embraces increased density and transport lead development. It’s an exciting time to be back home.

 Parking options are limited in Shanghai.

Parking options are limited in Shanghai.

This article first appeared on the Landscape Architecture Aotearoa website, which is published by the New Zealand Institute of Landscape Architects (NZILA).

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