A Chinese Faustian bargain

by Federico Parolotto

aerial view of Guomao junction

The presence of the car in cities is very often the result of Faustian bargain, as described by John Whitelegg in his book “Critical Mass: Transport, environment and society in the 21st century”. (1)

The Faustian bargain is one in which the soul of the city is given up to private mobility; urban quality is lost in favour of a search for solutions driven by road capacity, where road capacity is the attempt to achieve the maximum number of cars through a road or junction in a given time.

In China this loss of urban quality is evident in the powerful infrastructure of 3 and 4 level junctions of existing urban motorways, in particular the one that will accommodate a new city to be built east of Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport.

This road landscape will soon be populated by thousand of vehicles that will invariably move slowly in a congest road network, in a city where pedestrian mobility and urban quality are strongly compromised.

This bargain is even more evident at Guomao station in Beijing, located in heart of the CBD and in an area populated by incredible buildings such as OMA’s CCTV headquarters. The intersection is a 3 level junction system that bears testimony to how much the municipality is willing to compromise urban quality to ensure vehicular mobility.


view from the second tier of Guomao


What is particular in Guomao is the layout of the split level junction. Geometry and speed are strictly interconnected: it is clear that suburban clover leaf junctions typically have generous ramp geometries in order to ensure high travelling speeds. In Guomao, however, the junction is composed of urban geometries with tight turning radii – it is a set of urban junctions designed for slow speeds, but piled up in three tiers in the desperate search for road capacity.

Guomao is an example of how much cities are willing to give up for cars; pedestrian movement is relegated below these huge concrete decks that hide surrounding buildings from pedestrians’ view and force people to percolate through incredibly noisy viaducts spaces.


a pedestrian view of Guomao


The Chinese example shows that if cities are not addressed holistically, roads become movement channels designed to provide car accessibility. Pedestrians and even bicycles, despite their pervasive presence in Beijing only 20 years ago, are ignored.

Guomao tells the story of how much cities are willing to sacrifice in order to ensure express movement for private transport.




Whitelegg, J. (1997)

Critical Mass: Transport Environment and Society in the Twenty-first Century

Pluto Press, London





Leave a Reply