Traffic woes plague drivers as 'traffic begets traffic'

August 26, 2010 | Posted by Chris

A glimpse of the now-famous 60 mile traffic jam outside Beijing. Traffic woes will continue to challenge drivers in Beijing and elsewhere in China, but transportation improvements are expected to avoid a repeat of scenes like this, above.

A traffic jam on the outskirts of Beijing has garnered great deals of media attention from both Chinese and international press, illustrating an inescapable theme of modern China: its road transportation. While it took an extreme instance of bad traffic -- 60 miles of stand-still highway that's lasted for over 10 days -- to get the attention of major news organizations like the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and even Yahoo! News, for folks that live in China, congested roads are a fact of life.

Xinhua News reports on the challenges city planners face in developing road transportation: there are simply too many vehicles and not enough road space. According to Xinhua, researchers in Beijing have determined that roads in the capital city will reach full capacity at 6.5 million vehicles, a target that is expected to be hit before 2015, as there are already more than 4.5 million vehicles on the streets today. Because of this, it is expected that rush hour traffic in Beijing will not exceed 15 km/hour (9.3 miles per hour) by 2015.

Public transportation and educating commuters about the virtues of not driving when it's unnecessary are tactics being promoted to help address the problems. But this can only go so far, given the fact that millions upon millions of people are saving up to buy their first car -- even with 4.5 million vehicles in Beijing, that means about 75% of Beijingers are still to get their first wheels.

The summertime traffic jams on the higways outside Beijing are due to a number of circumstances, many of which seem to be temporary. On the positive side, it's reported that the monster jam pictured above was exacerbated by road construction that will be completed over the next several weeks. Morever, it's no coincidence the jam has taken place on the only highway that stretches from Inner Mongolia (now the seat of China's coal production) to Beijing -- the route by which coal trucks deliver from the mines of the steppe to the big city's power plants. Also on the positive side, new railways that will relieve the roads of coal transportation from Inner Mongolia to Beijing are nearing completion, which promises to take a great number of coal trucks off the road. More may be read about this here.

Jonathan Watts, Beijing correspondent for the Guardian, traveled to the scene of the headline-grabbing traffic jam. He said that bad traffic essentially begets more bad traffic simply because drivers come to expect it. For example, in a tie-up at nighttime, truck drivers on the highway will just go to sleep because they're accustomed to overnight traffic jams. But when the road clears up, other drivers will have to go banging on truck doors to wake up the dozing drivers and tell them to get going. This quirky circumstance, too, should be expected to disappear as conditions improve.

In sum, when the international headlines go away, keep this story in mind, because traffic in Beijing and elsewhere in China is a long-term issue that will demand long-term solutions.

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