In its race with the car, Beijing is losing

Last Updated 24 December 2010, 15:17 IST

Here is the plan unwrapped last week by Beijing’s city fathers to tackle the city’s suffocating traffic: 2,80,000 new parking spaces; 1,000 share-a-bike stations; 348 miles of new subway track; 125 miles of new downtown streets; 23 miles of tunnels; 9 new transportation hubs; 3 congestion zones; and 1 cure-all, “the use of modern technology.”

Never let it be said that China, proud consumer of more than half the planet’s cement, thinks small.

Except, perhaps, this time.

For in the latest match between Beijing’s build-baby-build bureaucrats and its Gordian knot of traffic, more than a few folks are betting on the knot.

“We have built many flyovers and expressways,” said Zhao Jie, a transportation expert at the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design. “We have spent quite a lot of money on subways and bus lines, and Beijing probably has the lowest bus fares in the world. But the stimuli to car ownership are even more powerful.”

Duan Haizhu, a 26-year-old taxi driver, put it more elegantly during a recent crosstown crawl in his orange-and-brown Hyundai. “The speed of building roads is nowhere near the speed of people buying cars,” he said. “And people won’t stop buying cars.”

Indeed, they won’t even slow down. As of December, Beijing counted 4.7 million registered vehicles, with 2,000 new ones joining the clog each day. That is more than 7,00,000 new vehicles this year, which was up from 5,50,000 new vehicles last year, 3,76,000 in the preceding year and 2,52,000 the year before that.

When the number reaches 6.5 million, traffic researchers calculate, Beijing’s streets will be fully saturated. Some would say they already are: in June, a survey by IBM of 20 global metropolises rated Beijing traffic as tied for the world’s worst, along with Mexico City.


From one point of view, this can be seen as another milestone in China’s storied economic rise. This year, nearly a third of all Chinese households fit the definition of middle class, with annual incomes of $5,000 to $15,000, and the share will rise to more than 45 per cent by 2020, according to Euromonitor International, a business-intelligence firm.

Most of them want cars. The government has been obliging. In 2009, in part to combat the global economic collapse, the national government halved the sales tax on the small-engine cars that most first-time buyers choose, and it spent billions on subsidies for rural car purchases and upgrades to new vehicles.

Through November, car purchases were up 34 per cent over 2009, the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers said. And 2009 sales were 46 per cent greater than those in 2008.

“Fifteen years ago, hardly anyone could afford a car. Today, everyone can,” said Wang Li Mei, secretary general of the China Road Transport Association. “History just evolved in its own way. Each day we’re getting more cars, and each week we’re building more roads.”

To be fair, perhaps few cities could have handled Beijing’s driver-population explosion better. Twenty years ago, Beijing was a city of bicycles and shabby, charming alleys, a single limited-access highway tracing a lazy rectangle around the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Today, five freeways girdle the city, eight more spoke from the suburbs to downtown, and the subway soon will stretch to 10 times its 1990 length.

The government has also tried to choke off centre-city traffic, banning cars from downtown based on the last numbers on their license plates. Ostensibly, that made a dent in the weekday glut. And briefly, it may have. But in July, city officials said rush-hour traffic speed had dropped nearly 4 per cent in one year, to an average of 15 miles per hour, and was headed for 9 miles an hour by 2015.

That is, roughly, bicycle speed.

Part of the problem is poor planning. Curiously, a city of more than six million drivers has virtually no stop signs, turning intersections into playing fields for games of vehicular chicken. Freeway entrance ramps appear just before exit ramps, guaranteeing multilane disarray as cars seeking to get off try to punch through lines of cars seeking to get on.

Beijing drivers do not help. The city’s driving style is best likened to a post-holiday sale in which dozens of shoppers mill about a single bin, elbowing for advantage — in this case, entry to a single lane of traffic that is probably blocked by a taxi anyway.
Duan, the taxi driver, recalls a jam last February that left him and his passengers stalled for nearly three hours. “It was a combination of rain and everyone going on vacation before Spring Festival,” he said.

In September, another vacation exodus — this time for Autumn Festival — gridlocked the entire city, leading to 140 traffic backups in the evening rush hour.

Preventive measures

According to a senior journalist at one official media outlet, that episode prompted President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to weigh in, asking Beijing city and Communist Party leaders what was to be done. The journalist, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions, said Beijing leaders had suggested ways to halt population growth in Beijing and cap the number of new automobiles.

Hu was said to have rejected some of the more restrictive proposals as too draconian for a progressive national capital. The city opted instead to throw more traffic officers onto the streets.

Thus, the latest draft proposal, a clear compromise of better public transportation — longer subways and bike racks — and the parking lots, tunnels and surface roads that Beijing’s auto-centric society craves. And it hints at more restrictive measures, including limiting new car purchases to buyers who can prove Beijing residence, or even capping the number of cars that can be registered here annually.

The final proposal is yet to be released. But car-crazy Beijingers are not waiting for the bad news.

Last week, a local paper reported that one Beijing auto shopper, in heated competition for a particular car, smashed its windshield and declared: “This car is damaged. Let’s see who wants it now.” After he paid a penalty of $300, the car was his. Elsewhere, competing buyers bid up the price of an Audi sport utility vehicle by about $10,500 before the winner drove away with his prize.

All in all, reports the authoritative website auto.sohu, Beijingers bought 95,100 vehicles in November — a record and a third more than in the previous month. Last week alone, they bought 30,000. Instead of cutting back their driving, Beijingers are bulking up — girding for the prospect that next year, they won’t be able to buy a car at all.

(Published 24 December 2010, 15:13 IST)

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