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Traffic, Pollution, Gridlock

Bicycle Kingdom Overrun With Cars

September 5, 2003


BEIJING -- Zhou Wei never takes the bus or subway and rarely bikes anymore. He recently spent $12,000 on a red Volkswagen hatchback, plus another $1,200 to customize it, and he drives it everywhere.

"Having a car makes you lazy," admitted the 30-year-old sales manager. "It's very convenient. I can go see friends, go out to restaurants, go fishing on the weekends. I don't have to squeeze on the bus anymore."

Chinese families used to save to buy a bicycle. Now a car is the dream, and an increasingly affordable one as many Chinese seek the status symbol and individual freedom an automobile represents. The number of registered motor vehicles in Beijing surpassed 2 million last month, doubling in just six years, hitting the mark seven years ahead of projections. One in five households now owns a car.

"Beijing has firstly, among other Chinese cities, stepped into a society of automobiles," proclaimed the official People's Daily, the Communist Party newspaper.

But with the car have also come congested roads, perilously high levels of pollution, rising accident rates and worries about the long-term effect of the government's policy to encourage private car ownership. Beijing's air can be brown and dense and often the honking is endless on the city's traffic-clogged streets.

"If everyone is free, then no one is free," said Yang Xiaoguang, a professor of traffic engineering at Shanghai's Tongji University.

Concerns of whether China's capital, a city of 14 million people, will become another crammed Asian mega-city or an enlightened model of smart planning are especially important as municipal leaders remake the city in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games.

Beijing has vowed to make it a green Olympics. It pledged to invest $12 billion to clean the air and water and $7.7 billion to add 90 miles of light rail and subway lines, more than doubling the current network. Yet it will also spend $6.8 billion on road construction and repair, adding nearly 900 miles in new roads by 2008, when vehicles are expected to number 3.5 million.

To be sure, traffic in Beijing doesn't approach the gridlock of Bangkok or the chaos of New Delhi, nor does it have the swarms of motorcycles and scooters common throughout southeast Asia.

However, Beijing and several other Chinese cities have among the highest air pollution levels in the world. Cities all over China are furiously building new roads and highways, partly in response to burgeoning commerce and partly as a way to attract new investment.

Some worry that transportation bottlenecks will eventually choke China's economic growth. Yang said few Chinese cities have the vision or time for proper urban planning and called their traffic strategies reckless and unscientific. Politicians see a traffic problem, he said, and they order a new road or bridge built.

"Often we get very superficial relief," he said. Their thinking is, "if there's too much water, add flour. If there's too much flour add water. The dough just keeps getting bigger and bigger."

As Beijing grows, the urban sprawl makes car ownership almost a necessity with new townhouse developments springing up further and further away from the city center.

"Ten years ago we never imagined traffic would grow so quickly," said Yu Chunquan, chief engineer of the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau.

A decade ago, most cars belonged to the government. Traffic was light and the biggest hazard was running into a horse-drawn cart.

"When I started driving, you could drive with your eyes closed and not hit anyone," said Wu Shiqi, who's been on the road for 18 years and now drives a taxi.

As market reforms accelerated, Chinese leaders viewed freeways and private cars as signs of a modernized country. So they enticed the likes of Volkswagen, Ford and General Motors to China.

The automobile industry was hailed as a "pillar" industry at the Communist Party's national congress last fall. Its effects on China's economy are undeniable: for every car sold, two people are employed, either directly or indirectly, according to the Yangcheng Evening News.

So, while the media may criticize road designs or poor planning, no one dares call for limiting the number of cars. In an interview, Yu said he saw no need to restrict the number of vehicles or even have carpool lanes. While Shanghai limits license plates for new cars to 2,000 to 3,000 a month, Beijing issues nearly 2,000 every day.

The volume of traffic aside, another problem confronting authorities is how Beijing motorists drive.

"We're in the car era, but people's mentality is still in the bike era," said Pan Jiuyang of Beijing Communication Radio, which broadcasts traffic updates and driving tips. "Where there are two lanes in the road, we've seen cars form four or even five lanes."

Some drivers giddily change lanes -- sometimes into the opposite side of the road -- often narrowly avoiding cyclists, children, utility poles and other objects. The horn is a frequent substitute for brakes. Yielding is an alien concept.

One of the main reasons for traffic problems, many car owners say, is that there are too many bicycles. Surprisingly, officials and experts agree.

While many cities around the world are desperately dreaming up ways to boost bicycle usage, Beijing increasingly views its 8 million bicycles as a traffic menace. Its goal is to eventually have public transport replace bicycles as the main method of commuting.

"As more people buy cars, there will be fewer bikes. This will create some space," said Wen Guowei, a professor of urban planning at Tsinghua University and an adviser to the Beijing city government. "It's impossible to eliminate bikes, but we have to change its use, so there are less people riding during rush hours."

Wen said Beijing's traffic woes stem from its basic layout, first formulated in the Zhou Dynasty about 3,000 years ago. The emperor lived in the center of the city and the masses around him.

When the Communist Party came to power in 1949, architects proposed building a new Beijing to the west of the ancient city, but Mao Zedong insisted on one city center. To this day, the Forbidden City still stands in the middle of Beijing, with the immense Tiananmen Square to the south and imperial lakes to the north.

"For 2 kilometers (1.2 miles), there's no north-south road," Wen said. "It's a central axis of Beijing, but you have to make a detour."

Mao also tore down the ancient city walls and built a road in its place. It now forms the Second Ring Road, which wraps around downtown Beijing. As the city grew, planners just added concentric ring roads with little thought to radiating roads. Work is now starting work on the Sixth Ring Road.

Said Wen. "We have a saying: Beijingers just go in circles all day long."

Despite the pollution, the traffic jams and the rude, inept drivers, Zhou and other car-owners swear by their new four-wheeled friends.

Car culture has arrived in China at lightning speed. Beijing has drive-through fast food restaurants, car clubs and the ubiquitous car alarms that go screaming in the night.

Is Zhou worried that Beijing will eventually have so many cars the roads will be paralyzed? No way.

"That won't happen," he said confidently. "The government will control it."

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