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Beijing’s Olympic-sized traffic problem

Beijing is investing in public transportation before the Games, but experts are more worried about the transit crisis they will face after the Olympic torch has left town. Alex Pasternack asks how China’s capital can beat the sprawl.
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At an afternoon press conference during the International Olympic Committee’s visit last summer, Hein Verbruggen, the Dutch chairman of the committee, described the city’s Olympic preparations as “stunning.” Another official said he had never, in two decades, seen such an organized plan for the Games. Even as a thick haze covered the city, Jiang Xiaoyu, the vice president of the city’s Olympic committee, explained to journalists that pollution would be brought under control, reassurances that were backed by the sanguine visiting officials. Then someone asked about the traffic.

The glow on Mr. Jiang’s face seemed to fade. Mr. Verbruggen skipped a beat before making a carefully worded assessment. “I can imagine it should be a problem for the people who have to plan for the traffic system. It's an uphill battle for them.” He explained: “The traffic is rather busy.”

For a city that often looks more like a giant car park than a bustling metropolis, “busy” was not only an understatement, but also lacked a certain accuracy - “idle” might have been a better word. Even as Beijing scrambles to pave new roads to sustain a growing automotive yen – 1,000 new cars hit the streets daily – congestion continues to grow. And for the millions of commuters who rely on a highly-burdened subway and bus system, just getting to work can mean a daily struggle against cars, crowds and carcinogens. When Beijing slipped 10 notches to number 14 in a recent quality of life ranking of Chinese cities, bad transportation beat pollution as the biggest complaint. In July, a report by the World Bank slammed Beijing and similar cities for a “piecemeal and ad-hoc” transit planning that was not only wrecking the city’s quality of life but also clogging its economy.

Even upper-level officials – their black sedans not immune to the slow chaos of Beijing’s streets – have abandoned typical understatement. Once the threat of SARS faded in 2004, Beijing mayor Wang Qishan shifted his sights to a much more difficult target: “The contradiction between real estate development and traffic regulations is the biggest problem now facing Beijing,” he said.


Before the Olympics adds a million visitors to an already exploding urban population, Beijing is expected to spend somewhere between 200-250 billion yuan on transportation improvements – about 17 times its budget for sporting venues. Along with thousands of kilometres of new roads and three new subway lines, planners have promised that special car lanes and vehicle bans around venues will help tame the traffic. But experts are more worried about the transit crisis Beijing could face long after the Olympic torch has left town.


“The Olympics are just temporary,” says Yang Xinmiao, a professor at the Institute of Transportation Engineering at Tsinghua University. “If we want to win the battle it’s very easy,” he says, referring to the government’s plans for road expansions, rapid bus transit (BRT) lines and technologies that impose a tax for driving on certain roads, or redirect lanes based on traffic needs. “If we want to win that war, it’s going to take a long time.”


Experts agree that the deeper problem for a mega-city like Beijing has more to do with where precisely those new roads go – or why they exist at all. Instead of adding a subway line that connects a residential area on the edge of the city to a business district in the center, Yang says the city ought to explore plans that narrow the distance between workplace and home, perhaps eliminating the need for a commute altogether. “We need to learn how to make the city more compact,” says Yang, who stresses that Beijing’s planning bureaus need to focus less on building and more on training and collaboration. “This is not the business of just transit engineers, but urban planners.”


A more balanced approach to transportation planning would aim to reduce car use and emphasise bus routes, underground lines and foot transit. Robert Cervero, the chair of UC Berkley’s city and regional planning department, yearns for such an approach almost as much as he misses the Beijing of the 1980s. “People walked and biked everywhere because the distances were reasonable, and it made the city very vibrant,” he recalls. Then, cars were a rare sight, and many residents took the bus or walked to their nearby work developments. When he returned to the capital in the late ’90s, Cervero found a city centre jammed with large government buildings and three business districts; many residents had been displaced to “super block” developments outside the Third Ring Road.


“It was like Houston [Texas] – a growing succession of ring roads with suburbs outside,” he says. Subsequently, building new roads to increase access between the edges and the center has had a counterintuitive effect. “Wherever you expand roads, development expands to take advantage of the new capacity: people buy more cars and quickly you’re back to congestion,” Cervero says. “In a city like Beijing, you simply can’t build roads fast enough.”


Not to mention that adding roads or even subway lines threatens to eat up land that could be used for housing or business, or simply for walking or cycling. “With such construction, you may be expanding but you’re not winning any livable space,” says Neville Mars, who runs a Beijing-based urban planning lab called the Dynamic City Foundation. He detests Beijing’s wide roads, with their underground passageways and pedestrian flyovers (“Beijing has more than any other city!”). “Infrasprawl” – the term Mars uses to describe the kind of construction that causes more problems than it solves – “makes the city inaccessible. Even the local subway stop becomes hard to reach.”


For pedestrians in a city of gargantuan roads and surging numbers of cars, inaccessibility isn’t just physical – it may affect the government’s plans for a “harmonious society.” “Cars are important, but they can also be a great source of disconnect in a community,” says Cervero. Higher car or fuel taxes and restrictions on car ownership remain politically risky, while decade-old policies meant to encourage the growth of road construction and the auto industry continue to prioritise the car above public transit. “This is how local officials get promoted to higher ranks,” says Yan Song, an urban planning professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has consulted for the Beijing government. “It’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s reality.” Song and Yang say the government must ensure its planners are better trained. “They draw really good pictures,” she says, “but [the idea] that public transit is to some extent for those who are probably less powerful, that’s often not discussed in planning.”


To increase accessibility and reduce traffic, planners agree that public transportation needs to be the centre of future development in the city, not the other way around. Developing business and residential areas around bus and subway stations would not only reduce the need for cars but would disperse the city’s activity out from the traditional city center to a constellation of different centers. Song suggests a “finger” network, like that of Copenhagen, in which development grows along major transit lines. “Transit-oriented development increases public transportation rider-ship and creates more livable, cohesive communities that encourage more people to walk,” says Jin Fan, the director of the China Sustainable Transportation Center.


Last year, the municipal government announced it would focus on developing three such transportation-centered “towns” to the east, in Shunyi, Tongzhou, Yizhuang, which will be connected to the rest of the city by subway and rapid bus lines. Meanwhile, the city’s planning institute is examining future transit-centric developments. Still, shifting gears from a car-centred city, in which public transportation only supports a third of the city’s total transportation load, to one dominated by public transportation will not be easy. New lines and more buses are not enough, says Song; a system of cleaner buses and subway cars with better air-conditioning systems and reduced wait times will entice more people to give up driving. “The affluent should ride BRT buses with everyone else,” adds Jin.


But serious public transit upgrades, some argue, will require heavy investments from the private sector, or even a complete privatisation of the transit system, such as that of Hong Kong or Tokyo – models that Beijing will not follow anytime soon. “We’re still under a socialist system,” Song says, “but in many cases, Chinese cities are already using the private model to build roads.” Zhou Yixin, who studies transportation at the Chinese Academy of Sciences notes that, in general, agrees that a spirit of official change is afoot. “A few years ago they were building more ring roads and expressways. But they’ve begun to reconsider and think about using more public transport, not only for the Olympic Games but for developing the whole city.”


Professor Yang is not so impressed. “I think the problem will only get worse in the coming years.” Though he is working to generate more collaboration between government and academia, the planners he consults “don’t have the power to influence the decision makers, who do not think the way we think,” he says.


These days later, when he returns to the Beijing he once admired, Professor Cervero says he feels like he gets the brush-off from the official planners he’s come to consult. “They kind of politely nod their head and thank me, but they just continue to pave concrete and pave roads.” Just as new roads can lead to new congestion, Cervero warns, without smart growth the city could slow to a crawl too. The city’s best-laid plans will need to be followed by its best-laid subway lines, bus routes and urban development. “Whatever transportation techniques you develop during fast periods of growth will determine transit patterns for the next 50 years,” he says. “Is it too late? I wouldn’t say yes. But my sense is that [there will need to be an abrupt] change of course to a vision where the city grows, and uses public transit to get there.”

Home page photo by decade_null

Alex Pasternack, a freelance writer based in Beijing, is a correspondent for green lifestyle website treehugger.com. This article originally appeared in that's Beijing magazine.

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Traffic in Beijing will make you headache!

Whenver I think about traffic in Beijing, I feel headache. It is a torture to live in such big cities as Beijing. When will the decision makers and city planners take practial actions to improve the current situation in consideration of the daily life of the ordinary people in the Chinese Capital. Let's wait and see any new development.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我认为主要的问题是要采纳足够多的劝阻人们购买和拥有汽车的措施。作者正确指出了一些发展迅速的城市例如北京, 汽车的拥有因作为身份的象征而显得非常重要。这或许不能带来任何有意义的改善, 除非态度的改变, 中国政府正为这改变而努力。

A matter of attitude

I think the main problem is to create enough disincentives for car ownership. The author rightly highlighted, that in a fast developing city such as Beijing, cars as status symbols are very important. Maybe there cannot be any significant improvement, unless attitudes change, and the government is serious about helping such changes to happen.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





Is it possible for China to slow down automobile industry's development?

I don't think China will slow down its automobile industry's development for the sake of easing traffic problems.

Most of rich Chinese people expect to buy a car as long as they could afford to do so. In today's China, few of those affluent Chinese would like to give up the luxury lifestyle, like to buy a car, and instead pursue a simple and green way of living. So there is still a rising demand for cars in China.

Moreover, auto industry is a leading sector for economic growth in China. So I do not think the country will slow down the industry as a sacrifice for enviorment protection.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


不错的一篇文章。不巧的是(但是并不觉得奇怪), 它不给人以希望和信心,没有激励的作用。


Interesting, but not encouraging

Great post. Unfortunately (but not surprisingly), not very encouraging.

China Law Blog

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


根据亚洲发展银行发布的最新报告,在未来25年内整个亚洲的交通二氧化碳排放量将会翻3倍,这还是比较保守的估计。(《能源效率和气候变迁:关于亚洲交通状况的思考》)。Alex Pasternack在其中描述了一些问题,在面临这些问题的同时,我不得不想在某些方面这种“经济增长”是不是应该被描述成为“非经济增长”。
就我而言,我生活在英国,但骑车不买车。我觉得这样更利于我保持身材锻炼身体。Brian Davey

Uneconomic growth & emission permit

A recently released report by the Asian Development Bank shows that even under optimistic assumptions the growth of carbon emissions from transport throughout Asia will treble over the next 25 years. ("Energy Efficiency and Climate Change: Considerations for On-Road Transport in Asia."). Given the problems that Alex Pasternack describes you have to wonder at what point it is accepted that this kind of "economic growth" is better described as "uneconomic growth".

I also wonder where all the fuel is going to come from for this transport expansion. There is increasing acceptance that, in a few years time, world oil production will peak and thereafter decline by 3% a year, perhaps by much more. Of course, fuels can be derived from China's plentiful coal but this is a dirty and costly process that releases more than twice the greenhouse emissions of a traditional refinery process, in addition to the emissions when the fuel is used in cars and trucks. Thus oil depletion could mean that pollution and greenhouse gases rise yet further when coal-to-liquid based transport fuels are used as substitutes.

Leaving aside the danger to the world from conflict over oil, which has already led to disastrous American and British interference in the politics of the Middle East, the implications for the global climate of the transport growth is alarming.

I think we need global principles to keep our economic activities within ecological limits and in a way that is fair to everyone, whatever their country. The simplest would be to ration the use of the earth's atmosphere as a dump for greenhouse gases on an equal per capita basis in a UN treaty. This would form the basis for energy rationing in each country: before coal, oil or gas suppliers could sell their products they would have to have a permit for the greenhouse gas content of their fuels when burned. These permits would be given to citizens on an equal basis and the suppliers would have to buy them before they can sell their fossil fuels. Schemes just focusing on transport emissions are also possible - for example, citizens could be issued equal permits for transport emissions and then any company wanting to sell into the transport fuel market would first have to buy permits for the emissions of the fuel they want to sell. This would put up transport fuel costs and limit motor expansion but there would be a compensatory income to citizens when sold their permits that would make this fair.

As for me, I live in the UK but I do not own a car but ride a bike. It keeps me fit.

Brian Davey

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


Brian, 谢谢您所发表的评论。这提醒了我对于建设和聚合的构思, 那就是说我们规定一个限度, 怎样才认为是安全的, 并且以在这星球的单一人口计算方式进行分配以及设定限度。因此, 发达国家就必须减排以彻底的配合 (但不一定是在于经济方面), 由此以来发展中国家才有成长的余地。我认为这是挺公平的构思。你认为呢?

rationing emissions

thank you for your thoughtful post. It reminded me of the contraction and convergence idea -- that we set a limit on how much we consider safe and divide the margin between where we are now and what the limit is between everyone on the lanet on a per capita basis. Then developed countries have to shrink emissions (but not necessarily their economies) drastically to fit, while developing countries have room to grow.. it seem like a fair idea to me. What do you think?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



所有的新车将停到什么地方去呢?在他的书《免费停车带来的高代价》中,多那德•舒伯(Donald Shoup)教授说明了美国视停车位为免费使用的公共场所和要求新建的办公大楼和商场建相应的停车场等做法带来的灾难性的后果。这样一来,一方面美国大众都认为免费(低价)停车是一种权利。同时,美国人还得为遍布全国的停车场扩张付费。当然了,交通拥塞问题也就变得更严重了。

D. Dembowski, 纽约

The parking factor

I just want to raise one issue related to Alex's interesting article and the nice discussion that it's sparked: parking. Where are all these cars going to park? In his book, The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup shows the disastrous effect of the US' treating parking spaces as a commons and then requiring new offices or malls to build parking lots. As a result, people see free (or cheap) parking as a right, and everyone in the US has paid the price for an awful expansion of parking lots across the country. Congestion, of course, has only gotten worse.

D. Dembowski Pelham, New York

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Economics of renewable energy resources

It would be better to comply with the current situation, to encourage economic development for a while.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Population is the source

It is absurd to encourage people using public transport as a reason to prevent them from purchasing cars. Car purchasing is not just the issue of the country’s automobile industry; but also symbolizing the human civilization, it does not means that busy traffic in any of the developed country, should restrict people from buying car. Over populated is the root cause. In most of the country, it is a command scenario at certain time and certain places which traffic jam always happened. Hence, there is nothing wrong with traffic jam in city. However, if it’s happening everywhere most of the day, it does not seem to be a simple issue though.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我是即将毕业的学生,我现在非常恐惧出门坐车,地铁线路少,公车少,而且非常挤,尤其是前段时间调整车价后以前坐的空调车(价格变低了)也变得非常挤。如果上班的话,唯一的选择就是买车,并把买车作为上班的动力之一,真的很不希望这样,但是没有办法。真希望能改善公共交通。      amy

Buying a car is unavoidable

I'm a student who's graduating soon, and I'm scared of the public transportation out there. Metro lines are limited, while buses are never enough - and extremely crowded. Especially after the recent price change (a price cut) in public transportaion, even the air-conditioned buses that I often took before became extremely crowded too. If I'm working, the only choice seems to be purchasing a car, which can also be used for work. I don't want it this way, but I can't do anything to change it. I truly hope that public transportation can be improved.