UBC Graduate Research

Prestige on Wheels: A Qualitative Study of Middle Class Life Aspirations and their Implications for Transportation Planning in Beijing Campbell, Rupert


One day in Beijing provides a jarring snapshot of motorization issues in China. Beijing is considered the most motorized city in China, and the consequent air pollution and congestion are stark. These issues have led to unprecedented investment in its subway system, as well as policies restricting car driving and ownership. However, despite worsening conditions and rising prices, owning a car is perceived as a natural expectation by rising middle class Chinese. Prior studies suggest that this is a values-based perception, influenced by desires for social status and materialistic aspirations. Through in-depth semi-structured interviews, this qualitative study builds on existing survey research on desire to own cars, exploring how deeply held this desire is, and what motivations there are. 25 interviews were conducted with highly educated white collar workers born in the 1980’s, representative of China’s rising middle class. While all participants desired to own a car, the lack of awareness about the costs, implications, experience of driving, and impacts associated with owning a car was surprising. Participants showed huge tolerance to the cost of purchasing a car, in spite of the extremely low cost of other modes in Beijing, and yet often did not plan on driving regularly. Aspiring car owners were found to be irrational in an economic sense, with desire to own a car highly influenced by peer groups and social expectations. However car owners reinforced the shocking experience of driving in Beijing, and bemoaned the cost of owning a car in the city, although they would not relinquish their cars by choice. Based on these findings some creative suggestions are provided for potential policy interventions.

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