Megacities are the trend of the 21st century. This means metropolitan areas that are home to more than a million inhabitants. Atlanta qualifies for the label. But to see cities of truly enormous proportions, one needs to go to Asia.
My current domicile is Hefei, located in the province of Anhui. That’s 285 miles west of Shanghai. On a map, Hefei looks just like any other “provincial” town. In real life, it’s a metropolis counting 7.6 million residents (Atlanta: 5.5 million).
Population density in the U.S. is less than in many other countries, which creates greater distances between suburbs. But the traffic volume in Hefei makes up for any possible gains in driving time. To go from the downtown railroad station to the university on the northeastern fringe of the city takes a full hour by bus.
All the main city streets are three to four lanes in each direction. Traffic is extremely heavy at all times, on weekends as much as during the work week. It doesn’t mean three-wheeled bicycles heading down the street. It consists of modern cars of the same brands that you see in Georgia every day.
An American visitor will first notice the cacophony of honking everywhere, and then learn that cars, trucks and buses don’t slow down for pedestrians. Instead, crossing the street usually earns him some deft blows of the horn from cars passing frighteningly close.
The mix of automobiles, scooters, motorcycles and rolling contraptions of all kinds creates a swirling mass that moves slowly but noisily in various directions. Even in that enormous maze of extra-wide streets and overpasses, the grid appears to be heavily overloaded with cars, and with buses plowing through the jam by the power of their size and mass.
To its credit, Hefei is currently building a subway system. The excavation work has made traffic worse temporarily, but underground trains are sure to provide some relief to the transportation needs of millions.
The most impressive aspect of the city is the never-ending parade of apartment skyscrapers, built in dense clusters. Driving across town for an hour or more will keep one in constant view of those structures, 30 to 50 stories tall. At the fringes of town, large-scale demolition of old buildings shows the ever-increasing need for housing, with hundreds of new skyscrapers under construction. The megacity hasn’t stopped growing yet.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.