Traffic in China

Traffic in China’s major cities is so bad that it makes Los Angeles traffic seem turbocharged by comparison. I know, I’ve been caught in it so many times it’s not irritating anymore, but expected. In fact, it’s not unusual in Beijing for business meetings to be delayed by an hour or more due to the cities huge traffic jams. I’ve sipped more than a few cups of tea waiting for my appointment to arrive and I know others have done the same waiting for me. In Doing the China Tango I briefly mentioned China’s traffic, but I didn’t really go into great detail because it wasn’t the focus of the chapter. But since my book came out a number of readers have e-mailed and asked me to go into more detail on China’s growing traffic problems. Hopefully what I’ve written below will provide more detail.

There’s a number of reasons for China’s increasing heavy urban traffic. The first is that there’s a continuing migration from China’s rural to urban areas. With this urbanization there’s also a corresponding increase in vehicular traffic. Another reason for China’s urban traffic congestion is that people in China are becoming wealthier and there’s now a large middle class. This increase in wealth has enabled more Chinese to purchase cars whereas, even a decade or two ago, this would have been out of the reach of most Chinese citizens.

In Beijing, known as China’s capital of traffic congestion, the average weekday congestion time is 100 minutes, 30 minutes longer than just a year ago. On rainy days traffic jams can last as long as three to four hours. Beijing just has too many cars on the road. On July 10 of this year, according to the South China Morning Post, there were 5.53 million cars registered in Beijing, a 330,000 increase over 2012. The world’s longest traffic jam, according to Forbes, occurred in Beijing in August of 2010. In that month cars and trucks trying to travel on the Beijing-Tibet expressway created a massive 62 mile traffic jam that lasted for 12 days. This is not a typo – 12 days! The reason for this wasn’t a natural disaster. Instead it was that a lot of vehicles, combined with a great many very slow moving trucks carrying an extensive amount of construction materials and equipment into Beijing, all came together at the same time.

China’s rapid transit system isn’t much help as it hasn’t kept pace with urbanization. Subway and bus lines are jammed and railway lines are used mainly for intra-city transit. China could begin to control traffic congestion by limiting automobile purchases, but not everyone is behind this plan, especially automobile manufacturers. Therefore, most cities have limited the number of cars allowed into the more densely populated areas of the city by enforcing either odd or even license plate numbers on certain days, or certain license plate end numbers on specific days. Beijing, Shanghai, and other major cities have also gone one step further and instituted a lottery or auction for new license plates in an effort to put the brakes on the increasing number of cars entering the city.

Alan Refkin

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