60-Mile Traffic Jam in China Shows Downside of Mobility
By Chris Haak
How was your drive into work today? If you’re a typical American commuter, you may have spent a little time in traffic, and you might spend a little more time in traffic on your way home this evening. I know that I certainly do most days, and it seems to be getting worse as more cars hit the roads and available road infrastructure fails to keep pace with the growth in number of vehicles.
Well, after reading in the Wall Street Journal about a 61-mile traffic jam in China, I promise to never complain about being stuck in traffic again. (OK, not really. I’ll still complain.)
According to the article, the traffic jam begins on the outskirts of Beijing and winds its way some 60 miles to Inner Mongolia. It began when road construction on the Beijing-Tibet Highway commenced on August 13. Following that, a major road encircling Beijing was also closed, which compounded the problems.
The jam has now hit the eleven day mark, and if that’s not bad enough, authorities don’t expect relief until construction is completed and all lanes reopen around September 17. Now, it’s not to say that a car will be in traffic for a month from start to finish. But for example, a trip that might have taken three days before now takes a week or longer. The good news for those stuck in the jam is that official efforts to relieve the worst of the congestion, including asking trucking companies to curtail shipments into the affected areas wherever possible, have begun to show some results.
Many of the vehicles do not have creature comforts that we’ve come to expect from our cars – and even long-haul trucks – here in the US, so drivers are making the best of what they have. They are buying food and wares from local villagers and playing cards with one another. Police are helping to shepherd trucks carrying essential supplies such as food or fuel through the jam more quickly than trucks carrying some other cargo are able to.
In addition to the specific problem of the construction, China’s explosive auto sales growth – the country has solidly kicked the US to second place as the world’s largest automobile market. China is racing to build more road infrastructure to keep up with this growth in vehicle registrations, but that construction will make congestion worse in the short term as lanes and roads are closed to allow the necessary work. Maintenance of the existing roadways is made more difficult because many trucks ignore the weight limits designed to protect the roads, which shortens the highways’ lifespans.
At current growth rates, Beijing is projected to have 7 million vehicles registered by 2015, up from 4 million in December 2009 and a projected 5 million by the end of 2010; the city currently has the roadway capacity for 6.7 million vehicles. With car prices rising along with production wages in China, and now traffic congestion becoming an ever-worsening problem, it’s perhaps a nice bit of schadenfreude to see Chinese motorists suffering the same way – and sometimes worse – motorists in the West do.