China represents a test-case of global significance regarding the challenges of urban mobility transition. On the one hand, China is globally central to ‘greening’ mobility as the world’s largest car market, and with significant further growth predicted. On the other, the growth of a (fossil-fuelled) urban mobility system has been a central feature of the immense changes that have occurred since 1978 in China. Yet in both respects the need for an urban mobility transition is increasingly urgent, as manifest in issues of emissions and air pollution, urban gridlock and its social costs, and intensifying unrest around urban mobility issues. China, however, is also the site of significant government and corporate innovation efforts focused on opportunities for ‘catch-up’ in a key industry of the 21st century around the electric vehicle (EV). At the same time, the much lower-technology electric two-wheeler (E2W) has emerged as a global market entirely dominated by small Chinese firms and their Chinese customers.
The case study chapter argues that a successful urban mobility transition as currently envisaged remains improbable. Despite the disappointment to date regarding EVs, however, the evidence shows a highly dynamic and geographically diverse situation in China. In particular, we highlight how the prospects regarding system transition for both the EV and E2W hinge on their capacity to move ‘down-’ and ‘up-market’, respectively. This involves e-mobility becoming credibly associated in the public’s imagination and experience with a new consumer-attractive, ‘middle class’ urban-status and ‘modern’ mobility system, including integration with the latest and most consumer-attractive digital and ’app’ economy. Prospects of mobility transition in China thus hinge primarily on issues beyond the current policy-dominating focus of high-technology EVs, such as the generational shifts towards prioritizing ‘quality of life’ issues, together with associated openings for non-automotive sectors, notably in China’s internet and telecom giants.