Abstract Background High urbanicity and income are risk factors for cardiovascular-related chronic diseases in low- and middle-income countries, perhaps due to low physical activity (PA) in urban, high income areas. Few studies have examined differences in PA over time according to income and urbanicity in a country experiencing rapid urbanization. Methods We used data from the China Health and Nutrition Survey, a population-based cohort of Chinese adults (n = 20,083; ages 18-75y) seen a maximum of 7 times from 1991-2009. We used sex-stratified, zero-inflated negative binomial regression models to examine occupational, domestic, leisure, travel, and total PA in Chinese adults according to year, urbanicity, income, and the interactions among urbanicity, income, and year, controlling for age and region of China. Results We showed larger mean temporal PA declines for individuals living in relatively low urbanicity areas (1991: 500 MET-hours/week; 2009: 300 MET-hours/week) compared to high urbanicity areas (1991: 200 MET-hours/week; 2009: 125 MET-hours/week). In low urbanicity areas, the association between income and total PA went from negative in 1991 (p < 0.05) to positive by 2000 (p < 0.05). In relatively high urbanicity areas, the income-PA relationship was positive at all time points and was statistically significant at most time points after 1997 (p < 0.05). Leisure PA was the only domain of PA that increased over time, but >95 % of individuals in low urbanicity areas reported zero leisure PA at each time point. Conclusions Our findings show changing associations for income and urbanicity with PA over 18 years of urbanization. Total PA was lower for individuals living in more versus less urban areas at all time points. However, these differences narrowed over time, which may relate to increases in individual-level income in less urban areas of China with urbanization. Low-income individuals in higher urbanicity areas are a particularly critical group to target to increase PA in China.